HPCSA crisis could hold win for Tim Noakes

By Marika Sboros

Prof Tim Noakes
Prof Tim Noakes. Picture: Damien Schumann

So, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has issued a damning report on the state of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), effectively heralding its death knell.

The ministerial task team  investigating  the HPCSA since March has found the body to be terminally ill. Among symptoms of a deep malaise:  three top officials – the registrar, COO and head of legal services – are “unfit” to hold their position. In particular, the team says of the GM of legal services – who along with the registrar and COO refused to cooperate with its investigation – that he has overseen a “dysfunctional system of professional conduct enquiries which has prejudiced practitioners and the public”.

It says the council, a statutory body set up in 1997 to regulate a wide range of health professionals, including doctors, dentists and dietitians, is in a state of “multi-system organisational dysfunction”.

I’d call it multi-organ failure.

Among the  litany of accusations: tender irregularities, unacceptably long delays in registration of health professionals, and failing to act against unethical health professionals.

The head of legal services did find the time, extensive resources and enthusiasm to act against one ethical health professional  on behalf of dietitians belonging to the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA): Cape Town University emeritus professor Tim Noakes, a medical doctor as well as an internationally renowned, award-winning scientist.

I recently discovered that the council is pursuing not one but two serious charges against Noakes, both laid by ADSA dietitians; both that could appear frivolous in the extreme – if you know anything at all about compelling international scientific research on optimum nutrition, both paediatric and adult.

In the first case, former ADSA president Claire Strydom took Noakes to the HPCSA for a single tweet in 2014 giving his opinion that best foods for infant weaning are shown to be low-carb, high-fat foods  – in other words, meat and veg. Oddly, ADSA now gives the same advice.

Another ADSA member, Catherine (Katie) Pereira, followed Strydom’s lead last year and complained to the council about a throwaway general comment Noakes made in Sunday newspaper about dieticians in townships not advising residents people not to eat junk food. Pereira, who I’m told lodged the complaint in her personal capacity, is now an ADSA executive member responsible for the public relations portfolio.

(ADSA initially told me Pereira’s complaint had been resolved. The council has told Noakes’s legal team a very different story – that it is pursing a charge of unprofessional conduct against him based on Pereira’s complaint – but that’s for another time. Watch this space.)

I’d say the incompetence and corruption that has been exposed in the council’s activities  can only augur well for Noakes when the hearing on the first charge finally rolls around in Cape Town on November 23, 2015. More so, given the council’s incompetence and apparent bias in favour of certain parties that effectively bungled its first attempt to muzzle Noakes in June.

Read also: Tim Noakes and the peculiar hearing that didn’t happen.

Perhaps if the council had focused attention and energy on genuine threats to patients’ and public health rather than plumbing the murky depths of not-so-hidden political agendas and what looks increasingly like personal vendettas and professional jealousies, it might not be so consumed by the life-threatening fires in the statutory house of horrors it currently inhabits.

Here’s a News24 report on the implications and likely consequences of the ministerial task team’s report:

By Kerry Cullinan

News24 – Heads are likely to roll at the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) after a ministerial task team found its three top officials were “unfit” to hold their positions.The three – the Registrar, chief operating officer and head of legal services – failed to co-operate with the task team despite being asked three times to do so, said Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi.

They face a barrage of accusations including tender irregularities, massive delays in the registration of health professionals and failing to act against unethical health professionals.

The task team has recommended disciplinary action against the three, who had caused the public to “lose confidence in the HPCSA”, which regulates a number of health professionals including doctors and dentists.

The team also found that the HPCSA was suffering “multi-system organisational dysfunction” and recommended that it should consider “unbundling” into two entities. The one would regulate doctors and dentists, the bulk of the council’s members, and the other would preside over remaining health and rehabilitation workers.

“The time has come to review the value of the HPCSA after 15 years of systemic dysfunction,” according to the task team.

Read also: Tim Noakes in his own words: why I choose to go on ‘trial’

It described the council with its 12 boards and various sub-commitees as “lacking coherence and cohesion”.

A new HPCSA board was appointed last week under the leadership of Dr Kgosi Letlape.

Motsoaledi has given the board six months to report back on aspects of the task team’s findings, including how it will address irregularities uncovered by a forensic audit in 2011 that were never properly addressed.

He made public a scathing report which found that the council was filled with unfit management who violated a string of procedures and failed to provide leadership.

“The team was given 60 days to complete the work but as it is, it ended up taking six months due to the load of work. The report they handed to me is actually 90 pages,” said Motsoaledi.

An inquiry into the HPCSA was announced in March.

It was led by Professor Bongani Mayosi, who is head of department of medicine at the University of Cape Town, and comprised a team of medical, law, information technology and administration experts probing complaints ranging from allegations of administrative irregularities, poor governance and inefficiency to tender corruption.

Read also: Fat is NOT enemy, Tim Noakes IS friend, says top British cardiologist

All health professionals that want to practice in South Africa are legally obliged to register with the HPCSA and pay fees. It is a legal requirement for health care workers to keep all their personal details up to date with the entity.

However, the council has come under attack for being slow to register health professionals, particularly foreigners.

Motsoaledi said at least 30 unnamed staff members made submissions to the inquiry. The public was also invited to make submissions to the inquiry.

Motsoaledi said the COO has been implicated in acts of unauthorised, irregular and/or fruitless and wasteful expenditure. The irregularities relate to the purchase of a computer system called Oracle, which was initially set to cost approximately R14 million and snowballed to R30 million.

“The General Manager of Legal Services, who did not cooperate with this investigation, has overseen a dysfunctional system of professional conduct enquiries which has prejudiced practitioners and the public.”

He recommended that disciplinary action be instituted against CEO, COO and head of legal services and that the body be unbundled.

“The HPCSA will be releasing an official statement once Council has deliberated on the report,” communications manager Priscilla Sekhonyana told Health24. –  Health-e News

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