Tower Psychiatric Hospital is no Life Esidimeni - health ombudsman

Health Ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba has recommended that psychiatrist Dr Kiran Sukeri be suspended, finding that claims he had made about Tower Psychiatric Hospital were "unreliable".

"The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) should consider the immediate suspension of Dr Sukeri until his fitness for office can be determined," Makgoba announced at a briefing on Thursday at the Medical Research Council in Pretoria.

The hospital in Fort Beaufort made national headlines earlier this year due to Sukeri's claims about the treatment of patients at the facility, which brought the reputation of health in South Africa into disrepute.

Makgoba briefed members of the media about the "Report on an Investigation into Allegations of Patient Mismanagement and Patient Rights Violations at the Tower Psychiatric Hospital and Psychosocial Rehabilitation Centre (TPHPRC)".

The 62-page report revealed that Dr Sukeri was an unreliable witness and that the claims he had made created a "Life Esidimeni hysteria".

He was referring to the widely-publicised Life Esidimeni tragedy in which at least 144 mentally-ill patients died after the Gauteng health department sent them to unaccredited NGOs in an attempt to save money.

"There was a false Life Esidimeni copycat phenomenon because of Sukeri's false statements. This frenzy created a national mass hysteria. This simple complaint should not have turned into a national issue," Makgoba said.

The alleged hysteria stemmed from a report in the Rapport that stated there were 90 deaths registered at the hospital. The newspaper later published a correction.

Information 'statistically miscalculated, exaggerated'

This report was a result of Sukeri allegedly sharing confidential information which was "statistically miscalculated", as well as "exaggerated". The Health Ombudsman found that this violated patients' confidentiality and violated their dignity.

"The Life Esidimeni comparison was unscientific, ill-informed and based on inaccurate information," Makgoba stated.

He further lambasted the report as misleading and wrong because it had resulted in South Africa being seen as a country that allegedly violates human rights.

"The deaths were exaggerated to a figure of 90 but it was actually 68 deaths over a period of eight years. This amounts to 8.5 patients a year, which is not abnormal in a 400-bedded hospital," Makgoba said.

A finding that Makgoba highlighted was that the comparison between Life Esidimeni and the complaints regarding Tower Psychiatric Hospital were unfounded as the 68 deaths reported were not directly linked to human rights violations.

"There is no prima facie evidence of institutionalised and systemic human rights violations at the [TPHTRC]. I want that to be remembered," Makgoba said.

Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi expressed concern about those who invoked the Life Esidimeni tragedy on the department whenever they wanted something, but further acknowledged that there was a lot of work that needed to be done in the country as far as mental health was concerned.

"We are faced with an epidemic that can tear this country apart. We need to sit together as mental health is a big problem in the country that needs to be resolved," Motsoaledi said.

Although Sukeri, who was described as "duplicitous", no longer practises at Tower Hospital, he is a practising professional in the private sector.