A Canberra anaesthetist has been banned from practising medical research for a year and had a finding of professional misconduct made against him in the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
The tribunal last month found Nicholas Stephen Melhuish, a former visiting medical officer at Canberra Hospital, engaged in professional misconduct by breaching provisions of the national Doctors' Code of Conduct, the National Health and Medical Research Council's code and the ACT Health Research Practice Policy.
The Medical Board of Australia took Dr Melhuish to the tribunal after a long-running dispute between Dr Melhuish and ACT Health over a 2011-12 research project examining clinical outcomes for patients treated with blood transfusions while being airlifted to TCH by Snowy Hydro SouthCare rescue helicopter.
The dispute began when Dr Melhuish complained the protection of patient data on the project was compromised. This was internally investigated and dismissed, but later led to the Medical Board's involvement after Dr Melhuish began releasing confidential information about patients involved to several outside parties.
But Dr Melhuish and another involved in the complaint investigation gave evidence to the tribunal that he "did not raise any concerns about de-identification and privacy of patients when he first formally complained".
Documents show Dr Melhuish wrote to four patients involved in the research project, claiming "medical treatment details identifiable as belonging to them were available to a number of organisations and people outside the hospital".
He also wrote to the then federal assistant health minister Fiona Nash, the ACT Chief Minister and Opposition Leader, and a raft of other Territory and federal health-related agencies or departments over more than a year.
The tribunal found Dr Melhuish, in his letter to Senator Nash, also identified one patient to her as "the son of one of her former colleagues" and listed "pathology test results which he said were those of [the patient]".
Dr Melhuish also wrote to 45 other Canberra anaesthetists in September 2014 "providing an amended data file" from the research project and "asking them to re-identify patients".
The tribunal agreed with the Medical Board's submission that any breaches of privacy rules were "not as a result of the use of the medical records in research", but "as a result of the respondent's dissemination of those records after he left the research project".
It also found that four separate instances of Dr Melhuish disseminating information to the patients involved had demonstrated a "clear lack of honesty and integrity under 11.2.2 of the Doctors' Code of Conduct".
"The findings above indicate that the respondent did not accord participants in the research the respect and protection that was due to them, nor did he act with honesty and integrity," the tribunal said.
The tribunal found his failure to return an internal data set after leaving the research project in 2012 had breached other provisions of the NHMRC code.
Dr Melhuish, the tribunal found, had also breached principle nine of the Health Records Act and "acted inconsistently" with information privacy principle 11 of the Privacy Act.
"The tribunal concludes that [Dr Melhuish] has engaged in conduct which constitutes professional misconduct as defined in section five of the national law in that he has engaged in unprofessional conduct that amounts to conduct that is substantially below the standard reasonably expected of a registered health practitioner of an equivalent level of training and experience," the decision read.
It said Dr Melhuish must not practice as a medical researcher for 12 months and must complete an education program approved by the Medical Board related to medical research ethics, privacy law and the national Doctors' Code of Conduct, as well as pay the board's legal costs.
The Medical Board did not seek to have Dr Melhuish de-registered as an anaesthetist, instead telling the tribunal it did not believe his conduct was "such as to make him unfit to hold registration in the profession"; but his contract with ACT Health was not renewed after it expired in October 2014.
But Dr Melhuish, who was up until recently a registered anaesthetist, no longer appears on the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency's official register and it is unclear whether he plans to renew his licence to practice.
Dr Melhuish did not respond to questions for this report.