Doctors rally around coronavirus GP after criticism from minister

Matt Woodley

9/03/2020 3:28:48 PM

A petition condemning Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos and demanding she issue an apology has garnered more than 5000 signatures.

Jenny Mikakos
Minister Mikakos said she was ‘flabbergasted’ that a doctor with ‘flu-like symptoms’ had presented to work. (Image: AAP)

The furore erupted after Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos criticised a coronavirus-infected Melbourne GP for working several days after returning from the US with minor cold-like symptoms.
Dr Chris Higgins tested positive to the infection after he had treated more than 70 patients while having what he thought was a mild cold. Dr Higgins initially hesitated to test himself as he did not meet the Government’s own criteria, but decided to do one ‘for sake of completeness’.
However, Minister Mikakos condemned Dr Higgins, saying she was ‘flabbergasted’ that a doctor with ‘flu-like symptoms’ had presented to work.
‘Our advice to the community is that if you have returned from overseas and are experiencing cold or flu-like symptoms then please stay home. Do not go to work,’ she said on the weekend.
‘You should self-isolate until such time as you are able to be presenting to a doctor, getting medical advice about whether you potentially have over COVID-19 [coronavirus].’
The comments drew an immediate reaction from medical groups, healthcare workers and Dr Higgins himself, but Ms Mikakos has so far refused to bow to pressure to apologise.
Dr Higgins wrote online that he was ‘upset about the inaccuracies and unfairness’ of Minister Mikakos’ comments and accused her of using his situation as a ‘cheap opportunity for political grandstanding’.
It is understood Minister Mikakos later called Dr Higgins, but did not apologise. She also refused to concede ground in a subsequent statement, instead reinforcing that everyone has a role to play to prevent the spread of the virus.
‘All workers in the healthcare system do an incredible job caring for Victorians and we understand the pressure they can feel to turn up to work when they are feeling unwell,’ she said.
‘But let me be very clear: these are exceptional circumstances. We are still in the containment phase of what will likely be a pandemic. So to protect the public and healthcare workers, we can’t take any chances.
‘All of us have a responsibility to do what we can to prevent the spread of this virus.’
RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon told newsGP he was ‘dismayed’ by both Minister Mikakos’ original comments and her subsequent refusal to apologise to Dr Higgins.
‘We need out health ministers to lead and inspire trust and confidence in the advice and responses to the rapidly changing circumstances when it comes to the coronavirus, not to decrease morale’ he said.
‘Without Dr Higgins going above and beyond the Victorian Government’s own criteria for testing, we would likely not even be aware of this potential outbreak. He should be applauded, not harangued, and Jenny Mikakos needs to apologise as Dr Higgins has requested.’ 
Dr Nespolon’s stance was echoed by GP and Australian Medical Association President Dr Tony Bartone, who also called for an apology, as well as numerous outraged doctors who commented directly on Minister Mikakos’ social media page.
An online petition, created by University of Sydney professor of surgery Dr Henry Woo also denounced Minister Mikakos and urged her to ‘refrain from any further comments that undermine confidence in the medical profession’, while letters have been sent to her and Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt outlining concerns from the medical community.
However, Minister Hunt has so far declined to call for an apology.
‘I’m not criticising anybody. Today is not a day for criticism but for unity,’ he said.

‘Without Dr Higgins going above and beyond the Government’s own criteria for testing, we would likely not even be aware of this potential outbreak. He should be applauded, not harangued,’ RACGP President Dr Harry Nespolon said. 

Dr Higgins, patients and staff at The Toorak Clinic in Melbourne’s south-east are currently self-isolating, along with two patients he visited at Malvern’s Mecwacare nursing home.
Meanwhile, NSW Chief Medical Officer Dr Kerry Chant has said authorities are considering ways to increase GPs’ access to coronavirus testing.
‘We are looking at scaling up testing and we are working with our colleagues in general practice to support them having greater access to testing,’ Dr Chant told the Seven Network.
The NSW Government is urging people who are experiencing even mild symptoms to get tested by their GP, while those who are ‘severely unwell’ are still advised to present at hospital emergency departments.
Dr Chant also attempted to reassure the public that the detection system in NSW is effective and authorities are working hard to trace people who have been in contact with confirmed cases.
‘The group that causes us the most challenge are those where we do not know a source,’ she said. ‘We’re investigating intensively to identify chains of transmission in the community to stop those chains.’
At least 40 people in NSW have tested positive to the virus, with the national total sitting at 80 at the time of publication on Monday 9 March.
An 82-year-old man became the third Australian to die as a result of coronavirus over the weekend, after he contracted the disease from an infected aged care worker at BaptistCare’s Dorothy Henderson Lodge in Sydney.
His death follows that of a 95-year-old woman, a fellow Dorothy Henderson Lodge resident, and a 78-year-old man in Perth.
The Federal Government has announced an extra 260,000 masks will be released immediately from the federal stockpile to Primary Health Networks, while it has also secured an additional 54 million face masks for future use.
Minister Hunt said the masks will be available for medical and aged care workers dealing with coronavirus-affected patients and should arrive by the end of April.
‘We are grateful for the role of our frontline workers and recognise the need to continue to protect them and support the response,’ he said.
Minister Hunt also confirmed the Government is considering subsidising telehealth to allow doctors to diagnose the coronavirus remotely.
Dr Nespolon welcomed the news and told newsGP the masks and other PPE are vital to protecting healthcare workers and preventing an outbreak in the medical community.
‘I hope that the immediate release of these new masks, as well as efforts to safeguard the national stockpile, will reassure GPs who have had issues accessing sufficient supplies to do their job properly,’ he said.
‘We’ve already seen the domino effect that infected healthcare workers can have on the overall system. Protecting doctors, nurses, and hospital and clinic staff must be a top priority if we are to effectively contain and control this virus.
‘The RACGP has been consistently advocating for an appropriate avenue that would allow GPs to conduct coronavirus-related telehealth consultations. This step, together with improved access to appropriate PPE, will protect the community and help slow the rate of infection.’
The release of the masks coincided with reports that another healthcare worker from Ryde Hospital in NSW had tested positive to the disease. Dozens of doctors and healthcare workers have already been placed in self-isolation, after a doctor from the same hospital tested positive last week.
The RACGP has more information on coronavirus available on its website.
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Dr Stephen Leow   10/03/2020 11:56:46 AM

What a message to send to the profession! Test and get publicly shamed!

A.Prof Christopher David Hogan   10/03/2020 1:47:53 PM

I am heartened by the cohesive response of the profession to the nudge letters faux pas which led to suitable action & the cohesive response to a minister who thinks that the symptoms of a cold & those of a flu like illness are the same.
Keep up the advocacy - we will need such cohesion again