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This is our blog.  It contains most posts Julian makes at his own blog, along with posts relating to the firm specifically: If Julian can convince them to do so, it will also include blogs by other staff!

Almario – bariatric case fails on appeal: the house of cards analogy with medical cases..

In Varipatis v. Almario [2013] NSWCA 76, the New South Wales Court of Appeal reversed the trial judge’s finding in favor of an obese patient alleging negligence on the part of his general practitioner in failing to refer him for weight loss surgery.

The trial decision, which on any assessment was generous to the plaintiff Mr. Almario, had generated media attention and concern that it in effect required such a referral in any case in which an obese patient with a co-morbidity [in this case diabetes] presented to a general practitioner. Furthermore, that in some way the general practitioner’s obligations went beyond firm counselling the patient as to the need for weight loss and health risks if this did not eventuate.

The case must be treated with caution in relation to contemporary medical practice, given the time of the relevant GP care in issue. On appeal it was significant that the link between obesity and liver disease was not well understood until 2002, which followed the relevant care [and is indicative of the time this case took to proceed to trial].

No doubt the trial judge had considerable sympathy with Mr. Almario’s situation. At the time of trial he suffered from advanced liver cancer with no likelihood of long term survival.

The case on its facts presents a good reminder of the difficult evidentiary path patients [and so plaintiffs] may face in establishing their case and the obstacle the burden of proof they bear as the claimant creates. On reading the decision I was reminded of the analogy given to me by a senior lawyer, years ago, that a complex plaintiff’s case is like constructing a multi-storey house of cards, with a doctor or hospital only having to dislodge a single ‘card,’ or step in the chain for the claim to fail.  Further, to dislodge a card, all the hospital or doctor need do is create doubt.  They often have no need to prove anything: only to create doubt..

In Almario, amongst other steps (or ‘cards’) that Mr Almario had to satisfy to prove his case, even if it was accepted that he should have been referred to a bariatric surgeon for consideration of weight loss surgery, were:

  • that such surgeon would have recommended surgery for him – by no means a certainty;
  • that Mr Almario would have decided to proceed with such surgery, even if recommended – given significant risks of complications associated with such surgery;
  • that the surgery would have been successful technically  – again, there were well recognised risks this would not occur;
  • that even if such surgery was successful, Mr Almario would have achieved persisting weight loss – noting the risk of this, even when all went well, was in some quarters 50%;
  • that such weight loss would have avoided Mr Almario developing cancer.

This, it can be gathered, was a formidable task..  If cumulatively considered, it was easy to see why a conclusion would be reached that it was far less than an even chance that Mr Almario would have got to the end (built his complete house of cards).

An intriguing issue is whether such issues should be considered collectively or sequentially: from a plaintiff’s perspective, there is a clear significant benefit of the latter (ie if you prove step 1 on a balance of probabilities, you move to stage 2 and consider it independently), rather than the former.  My impression is that the trial judge followed this more generous sequential fact finding process.

The appeal succeeded largely because the Court of Appeal did not accept that the trial judge’s reasoning and generous factual conclusions were justifiable, rather than any issue of legal principle. The Appeal Court werenot satisfied, even had a referral for advice by a bariatric surgeon occurred, that Mr. Almario would have proceeded with the surgery and that such surgery would have been successful, such as to avoid the development of his liver condition and subsequent cancer

Doctor’s obligation to disclose restrictions on practice rights (AHPRA + hospital created)

As has been widely reported we recently acted on behalf of the family of Julienne McKay-Hall the woman who tragically died following weight loss surgery. As reported, the Coroner’s findings are a scathing condemnation of both the relevant surgeon Dr Ahmad’s care and that of nursing staff at St John of God Hospital in Murdoch.  A copy of the coroner’s findings can be provided, if you contact us (see email details elsewhere on the site).

An interesting legal issue which arises from the decision is the question of a medical practitioner’s obligation to advise prospective patients of limitations imposed upon their practice and particularly, restrictions in terms of the locations at which they are accredited to operate and any limits on the types of procedures they may perform.

My view has always been that a medical practitioner’s obligation to advise their patient of all information likely to be significant to them in determining whether or not to undergo treatment, most particularly surgical treatment, includes an obligation to inform the patient of any imposed limits on their capacity to practice medicine and in relation to their range of services.  Rightly or wrongly, if the issue is information likely to be considered significant by the prospective patient, as it is, it is a subjective test.  The test is not what the patient should consider significant in deciding on treatment choices.

I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of patients would say that the fact their proposed surgeon is not permitted to perform particular surgery or has been suspended from practice at a particular hospital, because of complication rates etc, would be very significant indeed to them in deciding whether to proceed with treatment at such surgeon’s hand.  Similarly, and this is a repeating issue in the cosmetic surgery area, the fact a surgeon’s formal training may have been in Ear Nose + Throat surgery rather than plastic surgery, would I am convinced, be likely to be significant to a patient contemplating cosmetic breast surgery..  I use this example, not as an extreme example of unsuitability: there are several well-known examples of ENT trained surgeons working in cosmetic breast surgery, in Perth.

I suspect, though I would be pleased to be wrong, that this disclosure obligation is not something commonly met. It would be interesting to know the regulator’s views on this topic and any advice provided to practitioners subject to limits upon their practice as to such disclosure obligations.