Prison's medical staff fail to detect inmate's cancer

NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Monday, 27 May 2019, 6:53PM
Doctors and nurses failed to detect advanced gastric cancer in an unwell inmate. Photo / File
Doctors and nurses failed to detect advanced gastric cancer in an unwell inmate. Photo / File

Corrections has been referred to the Director of Proceedings for falling to provide adequate care to an inmate who eventually died of advanced gastric cancer.

Deputy Health and Disability Commissioner Kevin Allan made the referral, the most severe recommendation he could make, in a report released today.

In 2016 a woman was sent to the Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility in Wiri. On her arrival she told staff she had been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome some months before.

Four months later she reported a burning throat and sore right ear, that she was unable to hold down food and that she was very light-headed and feeling weak. She also told a nurse who saw her that sometimes she woke up with acid in her mouth.

This information was relayed to the prison's medical officer who prescribed reflux drug, Losec.

A couple of weeks later the doctor, who still had not seen the patient, prescribed Mylanta for heartburn and increased her dose of Losec.

Another couple of weeks on, the doctor finally saw the woman. He prescribed ranitidine, which decreases stomach acid production.

The prisoner continued to report reflux symptoms and three weeks after seeing the doctor arrived at a walk-in clinic held by the nurse. She was given different medication but returned to the clinic a couple of days later.

She was seen by a different doctor who suspected an inner ear disorder and gave her medication to treat the nausea.

The next day she told a nurse she was vomiting frequently and the vomit contained black matter. She was scheduled for a review by nurses the following day.

By that stage she was in a wheelchair and described her pain as "10/10". Her oxygen saturation level was low, and her temperature was low.

She was sent to the emergency department at a public hospital where she was diagnosed with advanced gastric cancer causing near complete obstruction of the outlet to her stomach.

She died the following year.

The deputy commissioner was critical of the initial doctor's lack of contact with the woman when prescribing medication, or increasing doses.

But he found the second doctor breached the code by failing to take into account her history or perform an appropriate examination.

Allan said the nurse's response to reports of black vomit was seriously deficient and lacked the required urgency.

He said Corrections failed in its responsibility to ensure she received services of an appropriate standard.

Allan recommended the doctor, nurse and the Department of Corrections all apologise to the woman's family and referred Corrections to the Director of Proceedings for a further review.

In response, Corrections provided evidence of staff training and hired an independent nursing educator to provide nursing staff with education on commonly presenting health conditions. Corrections also commissioned an independent review.

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