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Whistleblower paediatrician’s suspension lifted after massive public outcry

10 June 2022

On Thursday, 9 June, paediatric gastroenterologist Dr Tim de Maayer, who recently exposed the shocking state of children’s healthcare at the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital, was suspended for ‘serious misconduct’, which prompted a massive outpouring of public support for him. The Gauteng Department of Health has now announced that his suspension has been lifted, saying the matter was ‘resolved amicably’.

The suspension of Dr Tim de Maayer, paediatric gastroenterologist at Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital in Johannesburg, on Thursday evening triggered a wave of condemnation from civil society, the medical fraternity and the general public.

Coming just three weeks after he wrote an open letter to the Gauteng Department of Health detailing the devastating consequences a failing public health system was having on young patients, his suspension was seen by many as a punishment for speaking out.

The letter of suspension, signed by CEO of Rahima Moosa Dr Nozuko Mkabayi, stated De Maayer was facing allegations of “very serious misconduct”.

“The decision of this suspension… comes as a consequence of your unbecoming conduct, in that on or about the 21st May 2022, you took to the media or have given an interview to the Daily Maverick without knowledge, permission and authorisation from the Management of the Hospital or the Gauteng Department of Health.”

However, less than 24 hours after De Maayer’s suspension became public knowledge, the Gauteng Department of Health released a statement saying that MEC for Health Dr Nomathemba Mokgethi intervened in the situation. De Maayer’s suspension has been lifted, with the department providing its assurance that the management team at Rahima Moosa will continue to work together to address the issues raised in the open letter.

The suspension was lifted after a meeting between Mokgethi, Mkabayi, De Maayer and Professor Ashraf Coovadia, head of the department of paediatrics and child health at Rahima Moosa, on Friday.

Dr Tim De Maayer is a Paediatric Gastroenterologist at Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital where he has been since 2009. Before that he worked in other public hospitals.
(Photo: Supplied)

“The MEC convened the meeting with all parties to engage on the matter regarding the precautionary suspension of Dr De Maayer,” according to the department. “The MEC wishes to inform the public that the meeting was fruitful, and the matter has been resolved amicably.”

Bongani Majola, chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), welcomed the decision by the hospital and the Department of Health to lift De Maayer’s suspension.

The SAHRC released a statement on Friday expressing concern about the paediatrician’s suspension and the impact his absence would have on the wellbeing of his child patients.

“The commission has been concerned about the unintended consequences of the suspension on the right of innocent children to healthcare,” Majola told Maverick Citizen. “The intervention by MEC, Dr Mokgethi, accords with the spirit of upholding human rights and is commendable.”

Public backlash

The SAHRC was far from the only body to express disapproval at De Maayer’s suspension. The University of Witwatersrand, under which De Maayer is a joint appointee at Rahima Moosa, called for the “unconditional and immediate” lifting of his suspension on Friday.

“This is a ludicrous situation – instead of resolving the issues raised by the doctor at the coalface, the department has chosen to shoot the messenger,” said Professor Shabir Madhi, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the university.

Madhi had raised concern about De Maayer’s suspension on Thursday, tweeting:

Remember this desperate call for help to save life’s of children. Upholding the Hippocratic Oath and living by a code of ethics sadly lacking in Gvt. In return Dr Tim de Maayer has been suspended by GDoH for speaking out for the benefit of the vulnerable.!

Speaking with Maverick Citizen later on Friday, Madhi said that the university has welcomed the subsequent lifting of the suspension.

“I think it was misguided in the first instance,” said Madhi. “What Gauteng Department of Health and the management of the hospital should have been addressing was the root cause of the reason why [De Maayer] went public when it comes to the facilities not being adequate in providing quality healthcare.”

While Madhi does not believe that going public should be the first course of action for healthcare workers, he explained that in De Maayer’s case, it was a method of last resort.

“The issues that he raised in the public domain were issues that were being raised with management and Gauteng Department of Health for more than a year, and there was absolutely no progress that was being made,” he said.

“In an event where there’s absolutely no movement taking place on the part of the authorities, then I think healthcare workers are morally obliged to make the public aware of the conditions that are transpiring in those facilities.”

Statements condemning De Maayer’s suspension were also issued by Section27, the Democratic Alliance, Saheti Alumni Association and the South African Medical Association (Sama).

An online petition calling for the withdrawal of the suspension, meanwhile, garnered more than 45,000 signatures in less than 24 hours.

Not enough

While the lifting of the suspension is welcome, it is not enough to undo the damage caused, said Dr Mvuyisi Mzukwa, chairperson of Sama, adding that suspending those who speak out intimidates other doctors struggling with poor service delivery and broken equipment.

“We are not privy to the discussions that went [on] behind closed doors, in terms of what was said to [Dr De Maayer], what were the conditions under which the suspension was lifted,” said Mzukwa. “Because what we cannot allow is the gagging of doctors when they hit the dead end in terms of resolving issues internally.”

Doctors have few options when it comes to raising concerns about service delivery, he continued, concerned as they are about the protection of their patients.

Striking is not an option.

“The medical profession has realised that even though we might not be under the same umbrella, we’re faced with hostility from the authorities in the country and if we don’t speak up around these matters, we’re on our own,” said Mzukwa.

“The only way to do this is to support each other and speak with one voice and condemn… unbearable conditions in the hospitals or in the workplace. And… [we] just realised that if we don’t support this doctor, it is going to happen with [us] on the other side.” DM/MC

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