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SWRHA board acted in haste

Published: 
Saturday, March 19, 2011

On the face of it, it would appear that the board of the South West Regional Health Authority (SWRHA) acted hastily and without too much regard for the consequences of its action when it summarily dismissed the chief executive office of the RHA, Paula Chester-Cumberbatch, on Thursday. Ms Chester-Cumberbatch sacking comes amidst a recent medical maelstrom in which there have been several cases of either mothers or babies dying at or soon after childbirth. The case that led to the health executive’s dismissal was that of Crystal Boodoo-Ramsoomair, who died at the maternity ward of the San Fernando General Hospital on March 4, after she underwent a Caesarean section. On Friday, March 11, the board of the SWRHA, at a special meeting, took a unanimous decision to suspend those directly involved in the management and care of Mrs Boodoo-Ramsoomair—five doctors and four nurses. On March 14, Monday gone, Minister of Health Therese Baptiste-Cornelis called a news conference to announce the suspension of the nine healthcare professionals.

Without checking to ensure that what she expected to happen had taken place, the minister went ahead and announced that suspension letters had been delivered to all nine involved that very morning.
This turned out not to have been so. The dismissed SWRHA chief executive, Ms Chester-Cumberbatch, the person in whose name the suspension letters would ordinarily have been issued, told the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian that she was concerned enough to ensure that the letters were properly worded. As a result, she did not issue the suspension letters on Monday—as she had been directed by the board. “Why could they not wait an extra hour or extra day to make sure we got it right. Since when do we do things in the media?” questioned Ms Chester-Cumberbatch. Her concerns are valid.

Surely it is better to take the time to ensure that something as important as a suspension letter for healthcare professionals is properly done rather than rush the process and discover, down the road, that the disciplinary action is flawed. While the minister may be right in her assessment that the level of mortality among near-term or full-term mothers and their babies is far too high, her bull-in-a-china-shop approach may limit her effectiveness in getting to the bottom of what is a thorny issue. Finally, while the board clearly has the right to terminate the CEO, it should be obvious that every employer must have a valid reason for dismissing a worker. The fact that the chairman of the SWRHA was unable to give a reason for the CEO’s dismissal, although he was asked on several occasions at a news conference on Thursday, may be an indication that the authority and the ministry are on thin ice.

And it is accepted industrial relations practice that there is an appropriate process by which an employer separates an employee. The most important aspect of that process is that the principles of natural justice apply to the CEO as they do to the doctor, the nurse or the cleaner. Those principles include that an employee must be given the opportunity to be heard before disciplinary action can be taken. One assumes that during the period of their suspension, with pay, the five doctors and five nurses will be given an opportunity to be heard by the three-member investigatory panel that’s been established to look into the death of Crystal Boodoo-Ramsoomair. The question, therefore, is why did the board fail to afford the CEO the similar right or opportunity to be heard.

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