In this edition of our regular Doctor news updates, we examine the role of AHPRA and Medical Board notifications and what they mean for medical professionals.
Australia has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, ranking third in a 2017 survey by the Commonwealth Fund behind the UK and the Netherlands. This high ranking can be attributed to a range of factors, from government support mechanisms and healthcare spending to our highly trained medical workforce.
However, as with any profession, issues with clients/patients arise from time to time relating to professional conduct or the likes. This requires a well-established complaints mechanism to facilitate investigation and resolution.
Australia’s medical regulatory bodies
Two main bodies in Australia are tasked with oversight of the medical profession: The Medical Board (and its associated state and territory branches) and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra).
Ahpra is the national organisation responsible for implementing the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme across Australia.
The Medical Board has slightly broader functions, including:
- Registering medical practitioners and medical students
- Developing standards, codes and guidelines for the medical profession
- Assessing international medical graduates who wish to practise in Australia, and
- Approving accreditation standards and accredited courses of study.
Both Ahpra and the Medical Board have the important function of investigating notifications and complaints about registered medical practitioners. The Medical Board, where necessary, also conducts panel hearings and refers serious matters to Tribunal hearings.
Source: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
What complaints can be made and how are they dealt with?
- Complaints can be made about the health, performance or conduct of a registered health practitioner or student, and can include issues with a practitioner :
- Practising unsafely
- Behaving in a way that might place the public at risk
- Who has a health impairment that might make them a risk to patients or the public
The Medical Board understands that medical professionals who have a complaint raised about them will want to manage risk over professional reputation and career. Its main advice once a notification has been received is for the defending party to cooperate as fully as possible throughout the process.
If a notification is deemed to have merit, after due process occurs around investigating the notification, the Board can mete out a variety of remedies, including:
- Imposition of conditions;
- Accepting an undertaking;
- A caution; or
- A reprimand.
Medical professionals have the right of appeal on numerous grounds, which can lead to a reversal of the Board or panel’s decision or it being upheld.
A snapshot of medical professional notifications
In 2019/20, 5,745 (5.8% of the profession) notifications were lodged with Ahpra, with 60% of these coming from patients or members of the public and 54.2% relating to clinical care. Just under 5500 of the notifications were closed, with 72% requiring no further action.
A potentially flawed system
Receiving a notification from Ahpra or the Medical Board is no reason to panic, evidenced in the number of complaints that are eventually actioned.
However, as outlined in this very frank account with MDA National (a medical defence organisation) by an obstetrician, this process can be difficult and anxiety-inducing.
In brief, the medical professional in question received a notification, cooperated with Ahpra to rectify the complaint (despite having no recollection of the incident) and ultimately was told they would receive a caution. This led to the defendant questioning their integrity and competence, but, after taking legal advice, they fronted the board to plead their case.
In good news, the Board cleared the medical professional of the notification. However, despite this positive outcome, the individual was left feeling some distrust around patient motives, and while completely understanding of the role of Ahpra in patient protection, felt the Board had flipped the presumption of innocence.
Receiving a notification from Ahpra is part and parcel of belonging to a profession that has oversight mechanisms in place.
While such can be stressful, given most notifications are resolved with no further action required, remaining calm and cooperative is the best course of action, as is seeking legal advice where appropriate.
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The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed in any way as offering legal advice to any medical professional who has received an Ahpra or Medical Board notification.