Exposed: Top doctor feeds raging pill addiction
A world-leading Queensland doctor has been caught bogusly prescribing himself powerful painkillers to feed a secret raging drug addiction while caring for the sickest kids in the state.
The Sunday Mail can reveal an extraordinary scandal unfolding around renowned paediatric intensive care specialist Andreas Schibler, which has engulfed the Queensland Children's Hospital, high-ranking colleagues who he claims also prescribed him drugs, and the University of Queensland.
Dr Schibler, also a pioneering researcher whose work has attracted tens of millions of dollars in funding to the university, had his medical licence quietly suspended in August with authorities declaring he "poses a serious risk" to patient safety while alleging actions were dishonest and covert.
However he has launched legal action to save his career - with the support of the university's Faculty of Medicine.
The top doctor, a father of three, has admitted writing himself prescriptions for thousands of prescription pills including Oxycodone - dubbed Hillbilly heroin - in the names of his wife, young kids, adult son and in-laws over three years, while treating the most desperately sick kids at the nation's largest paediatric intensive care unit.
The 56-year-old said he used the drugs to give him the "energy and motivation" to tackle his academic research work, but he says he never took them during his shifts in the intensive care unit.
QCH insists there is no evidence patient safety had been compromised by Dr Schibler.
Dr Schibler was busted when pharmacists became suspicious when he became a regular visitor at a dozen different chemists around Brisbane's inner southern suburbs where he picked up strong painkillers prescribed to other people.
He was spotted at chemists in Annerley, Moorooka, Red Hill, Woolloongabba, Holland Park, Yeronga, South Bank, Salisbury, Coopers Plains and Rocklea, with some chemists capturing him on security cameras in the pharmacies, sometimes wearing his hospital scrubs.
In suspending his licence the Medical Board said it believes Dr Schibler has a longstanding health condition of "opioid and benzodiazepines misuse" … "that may not be adequately managed, which may impact on his ability to practise safely" and could increase errors, slips and lapses in treating patients and compromise his professional judgment.
He has also been forced to halt his pioneering medical research to help cure sick kids which has $21m in funding, tribunal documents state.
He claims the suspension is also threatening the livelihoods of 27 staff who work on his research projects.
A world-leader in paediatric critical respiratory care he claims he is so important that his suspension has "compromised" the Paediatric Critical Care Research Groups future.
His medical licence suspension came one month after his licence to prescribe drugs was cancelled on July 17 after an audit of 3 ½ years of his prescribing history.
Details of the saga were revealed in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal where Dr Schibler is fighting two legal battles with medical authorities to salvage his career.
Powerful medical figure Geoff McColl - the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Queensland - wrote a letter, tendered in court, outlining the possible loss of research funding if Schibler is unable to work.
Dr Schibler fought to keep his medical licence by making a "voluntary notification" to the Medical Board of Australia on June 25 and his lawyers writing to them arguing he would agree not to see patients for six months.
But this was rejected.
He admits that at his peak in January he was popping 16 Oxycodone pills a day.
According to the tribunal documents, one colleague who allegedly wrote Schibler a prescription was Christian Stocker, the highest-ranked doctor in the paediatric intensive care unit at QCH.
Dr Stocker has told authorities he can't recall writing Dr Schibler a script for oxycodone in 2018, he agrees the handwriting in the prescriber details is his, but says other handwriting is not. Dr Stocker is not accused of any wrongdoing.
Dr Schibler argues the number of unlawfully prescribed drugs he is alleged to have consumed has been overstated by medical watchdogs.
His career hit the skids in June when a Queensland pharmacy contacted a medicines watchdog about Dr Schibler picking up drugs prescribed to a 55 year old on his Children's Hospital stationery.
When confronted with more than 100 prescriptions he had written for family members for thousands of pills, Schibler said he was seeking treatment for his drug abuse, and has taken personal leave from his job.
Schibler says he started taking over-the-counter Nurofen Plus and used Oxycodone for the first time in mid-2017 after back pain from an old injury caused by falling over in the snow while pushing a car in 1992.
He initially got prescriptions for Oxycodone from his colleagues, then started giving himself prescriptions, he told authorities.
He has agreed to submit to random drug testing, including hair testing, and says his addiction is not so bad that he needs to be admitted to a rehab clinic, and argues he is not a current risk to the public.
Schibler has submitted reports from his own doctors, but the Medical Board has demanded he be examined by an independent health assessment.
Schibler's treating psychiatrist told the QCAT that Schibler was "self medicating" for undiagnosed depression and anxiety, the medical board says Dr Schibler may suffer from "substance abuse disorder".
Schibler's psychiatrist told QCAT that Schibler's oxycodone addiction has never "negatively impacted" his ability to practice and that there "would be other" doctors treating patients "whilst using either similar or higher doses" of Oxycodone each day.
"There is no history. which suggests Dr Schibler ever practiced in an intoxicated state", the psychiatrist told QCAT.
A UQ spokesperson said Dr Schibler was seconded to the university for specific research and the letter from Prof McColl "was not intended as a reference or endorsement".
Repeated attempts were made to contact Dr Schibler and his lawyer.
His QCAT fight returns to court on Friday.
In a statement, QCH said it had launched an immediate investigation to ensure patient safety had not been compromised in any way by Dr Schibler's actions, after it was alerted by the state's Chief Medical Officer.
"There is no evidence that it was," the statement said.
"Children's Health Queensland has clear policies and procedures in place prohibiting the prescription of medication outside of a normal therapeutic relationship, in line with the Medical Board of Australia Code of Conduct for Doctors.
"CHQ was made aware and took immediate and appropriate action in relation to the prescribing practice."
Dr Schibler is on extended leave, the statement said.
"Children's Health Queensland expects the highest level of professional conduct of its staff and will respond appropriately to any findings or outcomes regarding this matter," it said.
SCHIBLER BLAMES WORKPLACE BULLYING, STRESS FOR HABIT
Dr Schibler blames bullying, overwork and back pain for his abuse of powerful painkillers.
Dr Schibler has told a tribunal that whenever his job became stressful, he swallowed a few more restricted opioids he had obtained from unwitting colleagues or by filling scripts in family members' names.
"I recognise now that I used opiated medications to reduce my academic work-related stress and treat the symptoms of my familial depression," Dr Schibler told the tribunal.
"I found that paracetamol, codeine or oxycodone helped me cope with my depression and the stressors of academic work, and gave me the energy and motivation I needed to get through each research day."
He said he was "constantly under significant stress" due to feeling "bullied at QCH" and the long work hours in the paediatric intensive care unit where he was often on call.
"I was exposed to bullying behaviour by one of our group's researchers and sidelined by a university department director in new research projects that I had significantly conceptualised," Dr Schibler said in relation to his research work.
Dr Schibler says he was stressed because he perceived his job was under threat in 2018 when he was told to shift his research group from the Mater Research Institute to the Children's Health Research Centre.
Dr Schibler told the tribunal that seeing the dozens of pages of unlawful drug prescriptions he had filled had been "deeply confronting and highly embarrassing".
"My conduct has caused me and my family deep embarrassment," Dr Schibler states in his affidavit.
WORLD-RENOWNED RESEARCHER IN PAEDIATRIC MEDICINE
Swiss-born Dr Schibler was one of the most senior clinicians within the nation's largest paediatric intensive care unit, at Queensland Children's Hospital in South Brisbane.
On shift, he was responsible for the medical care of all the children in the 36-bed unit and supervising doctors, including training young registrars.
His seniority means he leads the end-of-life conversations with patients' families and performs central line insertions, intubations, chest drainage and resuscitation of patients.
Dr Schibler is regularly on call to advise on evacuating critically ill children from around the state and northern NSW to hospital.
He is an eminent staff specialist, a title awarded by Queensland Health as recognition for his experience and it is the second highest classification for senior medical officers.
Dr Schibler has been a doctor for 31 years and has worked in paediatrics and paediatric intensive care for over 25 years. He splits his time between QCH and in research, with more than 100 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters and frequent appearances at international conferences.
He is currently on leave but remains employed by QCH.
He is also on leave from the University of Queensland "due to illness".
If he gets his suspension from practising lifted, he will need to reapply for accreditation by the department of health, he says in court documents.
Dr Schibler established the Paediatric Critical Care Research Group, which he claims is "the major driving force for intensive care research" in the Australian paediatric community.
Last year he was appointed a full Professor at UQ, where he holds fellowships in paediatrics, paediatric medicine and paediatric intensive care
Originally published as Exposed: Top doctor feeds raging pill addiction