Surgeon Chris Phoon working as locum in New Zealand after ‘hugely disappointing’ review process

“Hugely disappointed” with the process, orthopaedic surgeon Chris Phoon says he has some hard decisions to make after findings from a preliminary review into his service were sent to his lawyer.

Orthopaedic surgeon Chris Phoon

Orthopaedic surgeon Chris Phoon

The content of that review, its findings and recommendations remain confidential, but Dr Phoon said “it looks increasingly unlikely the hospital will negotiate with him in an open manner”.

The Southern NSW Local Health District said it had invited Dr Phoon to comment on the findings and recommendations set out in the preliminary report and is awaiting that response.

“SNSWLHD respects the privacy and confidentiality of the preliminary report and will not make any statements in relation to its content,” a spokesperson said on Thursday afternoon.

In the meantime, Dr Phoon has closed his Bega Valley practice and is working as a locum in other locations through NSW, Queensland and New Zealand.

“Regrettably I had to close the practice and send letters all to my patients,” he told the Bega District News from New Zealand on Friday.

“My service at the hospital ceased in February and I’ve tried to continue my practice, but due to financial constraints it’s just not possible.”

His work as a locum in other locations is also a source of emotional hardship for Dr Phoon and his family, who remain living in Bega.

“It’s very difficult for my family. With me working a long way from home I don’t get to see my three boys much anymore.

“We can’t do that indefinitely. For the sake of my family I have some hard decisions to make by the end of the year.”

While he couldn’t comment specifically on the findings of the review into his service as a VMO at South East Regional Hospital, Dr Phoon again questioned why the review of the entire hospital – which has been made public – doesn’t address the main reasons it was instigated.

The scathing independent review of SERH, released in mid-May, uncovered a dysfunctional working environment beset by bullying and harassment, poor leadership and under-resourcing since the hospital opened in Bega in March last year.

Wards remained unopened because doctors and nurses had not been hired to staff them, cobwebs had amassed on the window sills while the cleaning contract had not been put to tender and the local health district had provided minimal support and oversight.

“Whilst there was a great deal of investment in and attention paid to the capital requirements in building SERH, it appears that there was minimal investment in the people and the culture desired in the new hospital,” the report found.

“When analysed against the District values of collaboration, openness, respect and empowerment, it is clear that these values are not ‘lived values’ at SERH.”

There was a commitment from Health Minister Brad Hazzard at the time that all recommendations from the report would be implemented.

However, Dr Phoon said the report makes no mention of the huge community outcry around the orthopaedic department service and his contract termination, nor does it refer to the rural doctor contracts at the heart of pay disputes reported in 2016 – both arguably the reasons the review was called for in the first place.

“It all started as a simple request from me and other surgeons to be allowed to negotiate the situation with the rural classification,” he said.

“Now there’s no word at all of those issues that sparked the review.

“It’s been a very unsatisfying enterprise and a hugely disappointing result.”