Disgruntled GP fined for using alias to post negative reviews

Dr Pleayo Tovaranonte has been censured by the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. Photo:...
Dr Pleayo Tovaranonte has been censured by the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. Photo: LinkedIn
A disgruntled doctor used an alias on social media to attack his former employers, accusing one medical centre of “disgusting behaviour” and the other of dangerous practices.

The GP also laid a Health and Disability Commissioner complaint against one of the centres under the same false identity, alleging it put profits before the care of its patients.

Christchurch’s Dr Preechapon Tovaranonte, known as Pleayo Tovaranonte, has now been censured and ordered to pay $48,000 following a hearing before the Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal.

While the tribunal’s ruling was made in November last year, it was only publicly released this week.

It’s not the first time Tovaranonte has drawn the ire of the tribunal.

In 2017 he was suspended for three months after copying patient information from a Christchurch Hospital database onto a USB stick and later using the information to claim more than $30,000 in false ACC claims.

Tovaranonte continues to work as a doctor in Christchurch and is currently a GP at Doctors on Cashel, according to its website.

In his latest case before the tribunal, the statement of facts stated his contract at an unidentified clinic was terminated in November 2016.

Before he began work there, he created the pseudonym “Paul Tavern” to use in online reviews and Trade Me listings. But in May 2017, he used the false name to post a negative review of the clinic on Google.

“The waiting time was astronomically long to the point of being dangerous,” he posted. “I think they have had three managers over the last year. There must be something intrinsically wrong in this organisation or the higher management.”

He made another disparaging post in December 2017.

In May 2019, he was sacked from another clinic, which was also not identified in the decision.

Tovaranonte took to a community Facebook page under the same pseudonym claiming he took his sick child to the clinic but was turned away as they were about to close. The claim was false.

In July 2019 he wrote to the Health and Disability Commissioner under his pseudonym, stating the clinic put financial gain before patients’ best interests and had dismissed patient concerns about those policies.

The following month he made several online posts about the clinic, including responding to another user’s allegation in which he wrote the clinic was “well known for this kind of disgusting behaviour”.

In response to an online recommendation of a doctor, Tovaranonte wrote “he charges your arm and your leg. Plus he is close to retirement and he has not been up to date with modern medicine”.

The decision said Tovaranonte had founded a website to provide career advice to doctors. In 2020 he revamped the website and labelled himself as “co-founder and CEO” and included profiles of two other people he also listed as co-founders.

The two other “co-founders” were fictitious, and photographs of them were ripped from a stock image site.

Tovaranonte’s profile on the website and his LinkedIn profile also listed two law degrees from two UK universities. The claim was false - Tovaranonte had never obtained the qualifications, the decision stated.

‘Unprofessional and unethical’

In his latest case before the tribunal, Tovaranonte was charged with professional misconduct.

While he did not dispute the facts, his lawyer submitted that even if he was misguided in his actions, they were consistent with a genuine motivation.

Ultimately, the tribunal found that his comments made against the first practice, where he labelled its alleged failures “dangerous”, were derogatory.

“The Tribunal considers that it is unethical to make a statement using the pseudonym, and then drawing on material others have told him, and then to falsely cast this statement as being his own personal experience.”

His comment referencing “disgusting behaviour” about the second clinic was “highly unprofessional criticism”, the tribunal ruled. It reached a similar conclusion regarding the comments he made about a specific doctor.

Regarding the complaint to the Health and Disability Commissioner, the tribunal found Tovaranonte misused the process by providing misleading and inaccurate information involving a vulnerable patient.

His lawyer submitted the complaint was a “protected disclosure” under a piece of law designed to protect whistleblowers. The tribunal disagreed.

Tovaranonte told the tribunal he accidentally published his website in an unfinished state. The tribunal still found it to be misleading, due to both the fictitious “co-founders” and the doctor’s false claims about his legal qualifications. It reached the same conclusion for the LinkedIn profile.

Tovaranonte said detailing the qualifications was an “inadvertent error”.

“We are satisfied that Dr Tovaranonte acted in an unprofessional and unethical manner. This is a significant departure from professional standards and separately warrants a finding of professional misconduct.”

Tovaranonte was censured, fined $8000 and ordered to pay $40,000 in costs.

He was also ordered to engage with a clinical psychologist every three months for three years and to undergo professional mentoring and supervision.

NZME attempted to contact Tovaranonte via Doctors on Cashel. While the clinic confirmed he worked there, it said it could not pass on the request.

By Ethan Griffiths, Open Justice reporter