A doctor fired halfway through a two-year internship after forging prescriptions to obtain addictive drugs blamed a deterioration in his mental health after starting work at Groote Schuur Hospital.
Sheridan Walter was charged with misconduct after a six-month spree of using prescription forms from Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital’s pain clinic, signed by a doctor no longer practising in SA and with a fake practice number, according to Dave Chamber writing in in TimesLive.
He took the prescriptions to Clicks pharmacies which dispensed the ADHD drug Ritalin, the sedative lorazepam and the opioid oxycodone.
A suspicious Clicks pharmacist had contacted the hospital, and later identified Walter from a photograph shown to him by hepatologist professor Mark Sonderup, Groote Schuur's intern curator. At a disciplinary hearing, the intern was fired for misconduct.
Details of Walter's offences have emerged in the finding of a Public Health and Social Development Sectoral Bargaining Council hearing at which the doctor admitted faking prescriptions but argued dismissal was unjustified.
Commissioner Gail McEwan dismissed his bid for reinstatement, saying Walter's “wilful, deceitful, dishonest and fraudulent actions [were] knowingly and cunningly” carried out.
“Walter posed an operational threat to the department of health as the trust relationship had been irrevocably broken,” she said.
In addition, the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA) had given Walter a second chance to complete his internship — he previously abandoned a placement in KwaZulu-Natal — only if he agreed not to “prescribe or procure, order and administer medication which falls into schedules 5 to 7", said McEwan.
Sonderup told McEwan the Clicks pharmacist contacted Groote Schuur in April 2020. Simultaneously hospital CEO Dr Bhavna Patel received an email from Clicks about a formal complaint Walter had made about a pharmacist who questioned him regarding a prescription on hospital stationery.
Walter was suspended pending further investigation and fired after a disciplinary hearing in October at which he pleaded guilty to 12 charges involving six prescriptions. Patel rejected his appeal against dismissal.
Representing himself at the bargaining council hearing, Walter said he noticed a deterioration in his mental health in November 2019, almost a year after starting work at Groote Schuur.
He had been too afraid to ask his psychiatrist for medication because he was being monitored by the HPCSA, so decided to procure it himself.
He said that once he had completed his internship he wanted to go into the field of medical ethics, adding that he denied being an addict and was ashamed of his conduct.
But McEwan said: “It seems not to have sunk in that the misconduct perpetrated by Walter over a six-month period is what gave rise to the charges of gross dishonesty and fraud. No one testified to anything other than that his performance had been satisfactory bar a couple of interventions, which Sonderup had to make on his behalf.
“I am acutely aware that seven years had been spent by Walter on getting his doctorate (with honours)." However, said the commissioner, his fraudulent prescription plan “required rational thought and some cunning, and … was knowingly perpetrated”.
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