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Patients Aren't Prisoners

Jim Chipp

Psychiatric patients are not necessarily prisoners, Capital and Coast District Health Board says.

Board mental health service clinical director Peter McGeorge was reacting to a report into how a patient walked out of a Wellington Hospital ward and climbed into Wellington Zoo's tiger enclosure in February.

The man suffered serious injuries when the young male Sumatran tiger attacked him.

Dr. McGeorge apologises to the patient and his family for failing to protect him in the way he and his family would have expected, but says the balance of patient rights with safety is always difficult.

"A person who is in our in-patient ward has not committed a crime and is not a prisoner, therefore the doors are not locked," Dr. McGeorge says.

"However, we accept we have a responsibility to do the best we can to prevent someone leaving without clinical approval."

The independent report concludes that the man, who was undergoing compulsory treatment under the Mental Health (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act 1992, walked out of the ward unnoticed.

At the time the ward had two more patients than its maximum of 30.

The usual complement of nine registered nurses was two short, with a health care assistant filling in for one under supervision, and the clinical co-ordinator also carrying a case load.

Other recommendations were to review how patient information is handled, review the familiarity of responsible staff with acute patient status plans and implement a formal decision-making response to AWOL patients.

This patient's absence had been noted, but not acted upon because he had previously left and returned unharmed. Those changes that can be made quickly, such as providing more space in the ward, are being implemented and measures to reduce in-patient numbers and improve staff ratios are under way, Mr. McGeorge says.

Barrister Michael Bott, who is representing the man's family, says he is recovering very well, but it is taking a long time. He still needs to wear a back brace, and, because of the complexity of the spinal surgery he underwent, it will be some time before it is known whether he will make a full physical recovery.

Reprinted with permission from Capital Community Newspapers Limited.

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