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Health & Aged Care News Alert: Report into the Medical Complaints Process in Australia - current procedure a tool for bullying and harassment?

News Alert 12 December 2016

On 2 February 2016, the Senate referred to the Community Affairs References Committee (Committee) the terms of reference for an inquiry and report into the Medical Complaints Process in Australia. 

The Committee recently released its report on the results and recommendations from the inquiry, in November 2016 (the Report).

The key focus of the Committee’s inquiry was to look at the ways in which the medical complaints process may have been used as a tool of harassment within the medical profession, including by the making of vexatious complaints by competitors or colleagues, as well as the prevalence of bullying and harassment within the medical profession more generally. 

Whilst the Committee reported that the evidence before it suggests that a significant majority of complaints and notifications are made by genuinely concerned patients, it noted that the complaints process does not appear to have the complete confidence of the medical profession.  The Report acknowledges the concerns expressed from within the medical profession, some of which include that there are no consequences or deterrents for vexatious complainants, that the behaviour of AHPRA and other disciplinary bodies is unnecessarily adversarial, that the investigative process is often dictated by investigation officers who do not have formal medical training, and that a complaint which results in only minor findings can still be very detrimental to a medical practitioner’s reputation and employability.

Based on the submissions received during the course of the inquiry the Committee concludes in its report that there is evidence which suggests the medical complaints process in Australia may be used as a tool for bullying and harassment. When looking at the issue of bullying and harassment more broadly, the Committee also concludes that this remains prevalent throughout the medical profession despite a widely adopted ‘zero tolerance’ policy and that genuine change is needed to the way in which the profession responds to this behaviour.

The recommendations contained in the Committee’s Report are as follows:

  1. That all parties with responsibility for addressing bullying and harassment in the medical profession, including governments, hospitals, specialty colleges and universities, acknowledge that bullying and harassment remains prevalent to the detriment of practitioners and patients, and commit to ongoing and sustained action and resources to eliminate such behaviour.
  2. That all universities adopt a curriculum that incorporates compulsory education on bullying and harassment.
  3. That all universities accept responsibility for students when on placement and adopt a procedure for dealing with complaints of bullying/harassment when on placement, and that all students be provided with a written copy of the procedure pre-placement. 
  4. That all hospitals have a provision within their code of conduct which states that bullying and harassment in the workplace is strictly not tolerated towards hospital staff, students and volunteers.
  5. That all specialist training colleges publicly release an annual report detailing how many complaints of bullying and harassment their members and trainees have been subject to and how many sanctions the college has imposed as a result of those complaints.

In addition to the above, the Committee recommends that a new inquiry be established with terms of reference to address the following matters:

  • The implementation of the current complaints system under the National Law, including AHPRA and the National Boards;
  • Whether the existing regulatory framework, established by the National Law, contains adequate provision for addressing medical complaints;
  • The roles of AHPRA, the National Boards and professional organisations – such as the various Colleges - in addressing concerns within the medical profession with the complaints process;
  • The adequacy of the relationships between those bodies responsible for handling complaints;
  • Whether amendments to the National law in relation to the complaints handling process are required; and
  • Other improvements that could assist in a fairer, quicker and more effective medical complaints process.

The Health & Aged Care team will keep you up to date with any further updates on the recommendations from the Report. In the meantime if you have any legal issues in relation to bullying and harassment in the medical profession please do not hesitate to contact us.

Megan Priestley, Senior Associate

Zoe Hamilton, Associate

News Alert 12 December 2016
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