Bioethics Blogs

How was a drug-addicted doctor with hep C able to infect his patients?

Anaesthetist James Latham Peters transmitted the virus to his patients after he injected himself with the drug fentanyl. Image from shutterstock.com

Fifty-five women contracted hepatitis C after having abortions in Melbourne between 2008 and 2009. James Latham Peters, an anaesthetist with a drug dependence, has been prosecuted in Victoria for infecting these women while in his care. He is currently awaiting sentencing.

Hepatitis C is a common infection among injecting drug users. Peters transmitted the virus to them when he injected himself with fentanyl (a fast-acting morphine-like drug used as part of an anaesthetic) before he administered the remainder of the drug to his patients.

In a class action, lawyers for the victims are seeking damages from the doctors who engaged Peters as an anaesthetist and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). AHPRA, which has taken over from the former Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria (MPBV), is responsible for the protection of the public through the registration of medical practitioners.

This tragic case demonstrates an unequivocal failure of the system. But what went so wrong?

Peters was suspended in 1996 for abusing opiates and returned to work a year later. Found to be abusing fentanyl in 2003, he took a year off and returned to work under supervision. The flawed monitoring process failed to detect ongoing drug use and drug-seeking behaviour which put patients at risk.

Fentanyl, the drug preferred by Peters, is easily accessed by anaesthetists. It rapidly breaks down to metabolites which are not part of a routine toxicology screen and are only measured when specifically requested.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.