A French doctor has accused a group of surgeons, including a former president of the Neurosurgical Society of Australasia, of driving him out of practice in Townsville.
Dr Richard Emery says he was forced to move back to France with his Australian family after he was subjected to a series of complaints about his complication rate during spinal surgery.
After five years working as a surgeon at Townsville Hospital in north Queensland, Dr Emery decided to move into private practice.
It was at this point, in 2008, he says he received a hostile phone call from Dr Eric Guazzo, a local surgeon who was then president of the Neurosurgical Society of Australasia.
"He basically said, if you move to private practice, you won't be able to perform surgery in no time, so go back to France," said Dr Emery.
Dr Guazzo denies having had any conversation of this nature with Dr Emery.
Dr Emery says the complaints began after he moved into private practice.
"After three months I was audited by Mater Hospital from an anonymous complaint, saying that my level of complication was far too high."
It was to be the first of many audits.
"There were complaints about his use of item numbers, we audited that and it was no more abnormal than other surgeons used; there were complaints about his complication rates so we audited a year of his surgery and there was nothing out of the ordinary in the hospital related to his surgery," said John Stokes, a former director of medical services for Mater Hospital Townsville.
After Dr Emery had passed these audits, another complaint was made about him - this time to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), the national body that regulates all health practitioners.
That meant another audit and being placed on conditional registration.
Dr Rob Kuru and Dr Bryan Ashman, two surgeons from outside the region, reviewed at least 18 months' worth of Dr Emery's operations.
Dr Kuru told Lateline that Dr Emery's complication rate was within acceptable limits for someone undertaking the kind of work he was doing.
In February last year, Dr Emery made a presentation to his local craft group of neurosurgeons and orthopaedic surgeons at the Mater Hospital.
The presentation was part of a regular peer review process and looked at the data from his previous six months of operations.
Following this meeting, the craft group of surgeons put another complaint to AHPRA, despite claims by Dr Emery and Dr John Stokes that no major criticisms were raised at the meeting.
Lateline has obtained a copy of the letter sent by the group to AHPRA.
It says in part:
The letter is signed by nine local surgeons, including Dr Guazzo, whilst one surgeon abstained.
Lateline has been told that only five members of the craft group witnessed the presentation by Dr Emery that led to this critical letter of complaint.
None of the nine surgeons who signed this letter of complaint would speak with Lateline on camera.
However lawyers for Dr Guazzo sent a statement to Lateline that says:
Despite believing the craft group's auditing process was used to target Dr Emery, Dr Stokes had to tell him that without the support of his peers, he could no longer operate at the Mater Hospital for insurance reasons.
PHOTO: Dr John Stokes says Dr Emery's complication rates at Mater Hospital were 'nothing out of the ordinary'. (Lateline)
By March last year Dr Emery had had enough.
He had been subjected to continuous complaints, medical supervision, restrictions on his practice, and now his livelihood was being taken away from him.
He headed to the cliff face at the top of Castle Hill in Townsville and in his words, was 'ready to jump'.
"One day I got home and I got a text message saying, 'Take care of the kids'," the surgeon's wife Celine Emery told Lateline.
"I thought he had gone for a run and when I got the message I understood straight away that he had gone somewhere.
"I knew he was running up Castle Hill from time to time. So I drove up there, I couldn't see him, I drove up and up and up and I thought it was a question of time. I kept calling and he wouldn't answer and I was really hoping it wasn't going to be too late and I found him. I found him and I thought 'thank God', he was just sitting, sitting. And I told him it's all okay we'll just go back home, just go back home and everything will be fine."
In the same year, Dr Stokes was notified to AHPRA on two occasions.
He considers these complaints to be vexatious and says they were generated because he spoke out against an unfair process used against Dr Emery.
"A good friend of mine died, who tried I tried to resuscitate at the road side, and I survived with major injury," he said.
"That was used to claim that I was mentally incompetent and that I should be deregistered."
Since Dr Stokes first spoke to Lateline he has been subjected to another complaint, this time to the Federal Minister for Health.
PHOTO: Dr Emery and his family have since moved back to France but he is still under investigation from AHPRA. (Lateline)
Local Liberal MP Warren Entsch says he is appalled by what has happened in Dr Emery's case, and wants the complaints process overhauled.
"If it's shown that individuals are doing this and there's no basis for it, or it's done out of malice or greed, those individuals that have made those allegations need to be held responsible for their actions," he said.
In September last year Mr Entsch wrote to then-health minister Peter Dutton seeking an overhaul of the AHPRA complaints system.
"Unfortunately I got no real response other than to say my concerns were being acknowledged, that was in 2014...since that time I've written again, I've sent that letter to the new minister Sussan Ley," Mr Entsch said.
Dr Emery and his family have since moved back to France but he is still under investigation from AHPRA.
His wife Celine hopes to see his name cleared "just for our own serenity of mind."
Celine Emery says she knows of similar cases in other parts of Australia.
"We are aware that some other surgeons, foreign-trained surgeons, are in a similar situation and I wouldn't want their families to be in the same situation as we went through."
Lateline understands the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is currently investigating Dr Richard Emery's case.