AHPRA (finally) rolls out vexatious complaint triage

4 minute read

Frustration with the regulator has been building as more GPs report being the subject of a baseless notification.

AHPRA’s grand plan to speed up notification turnaround is finally under way, with the national committee triage all set up and running.

The initiative, which will see low-level and vexatious notifications triaged, fast-tracked and swiftly moved out of the system, was announced by Medical Board of Australia chair Dr Anne Tonkin at the AMA conference in July last year.

While it has technically been running since that time, it was too late in the year to make it into AHPRA’s Annual Report, and no updates have been released.

“This committee initially focused on quickly managing low-level [covid-19] complaints to conclusion,” an AHPRA spokesman told The Medical Republic.

“It now continues to deal quickly with [all] lower-level and vexatious complaints.”

RACGP president Dr Nicole Higgins, who spoke with Dr Tonkin earlier this week, told TMR that the new process was creating significant improvements.

AHPRA itself has long maintained that vexatious complaints – which it defines as a notification without substance made with an intent to cause distress, detriment or harassment to the subject – account for just 1% of all notifications.

It acknowledges that it’s often difficult to discern the motivation of the notifier, and many complaints which warrant no further action are instead classed as inadequate, incomplete, misconceived or trivial notifications.

Given that 58.2% of notifications are closed with no further action, the stricter definition used by AHPRA perhaps accounts for the dissonance between the regulator’s figures and those reported by doctors.

Part of the college’s ongoing work with the Medical Board will include trying to reconcile those different definitions.

“The RACGP has called on AHPRA to make sure that we have a better definition of what a vexatious and what a frivolous complaint is,” Dr Higgins said.

“A vexatious complaint is one that has no substance and it’s made with the intent of doing harm, whereas a frivolous complaint – which are [behind] a lot of the rise in complaints – are those where someone hasn’t gotten what they’ve wanted or they’ve been told to comply with a particular action.”

The main goal of the triage system is to get low-level complaints out of the system in a matter of weeks, rather than months.

“When you’re actually unclear about the nature of the complaint or the time it’s going to take, it really impacts [your] mental health and motivation to continue seeing your existing patients,” said Dr Higgins.

Three years ago, Dr Tonkin told TMR that complaints had been rising thanks to a growing culture of complaint in which people expected “perfection at all times”, and to AHPRA itself taking down the barriers to making a complaint: “And we’ve inadvertently made a rod for our own backs by making it very easy to submit a notification. It’s an online or telephone process and it can be done very easily. I think in the old days when a letter was required, perhaps people would get to the stage of writing the letter and then feel better having written it and not send it.”

Meanwhile, Australian Health Practitioners Advisory Solutions (AHPAS) board chair Associate Professor Gino Pecoraro has warned that AHPRA’s new power to release public statements about clinicians under investigation will create a “climate of fear”.

“We know that, in a significant percentage of cases, after the person or the case has been investigated [there is] no finding of wrongdoing,” he told The Medical Republic.

“If [AHPRA] releases the name beforehand, they can do irreparable damage to that person – not only to their career, but also to their health.

“Because there have been cases of people that have suicided after or during [an AHPRA] investigation.”

Founded in Queensland, AHPAS is an advocacy and advisory service designed to assist healthcare workers going through regulatory processes like AHPRA or Professional Services Review notifications.

Professor Pecoraro, a gynaecologist and obstetrician in Brisbane, said AHPAS would like to see a less combative, less punitive regulator.

“Why not make it a part of the legislation that it’s mandated that people being involved in [regulatory action] have to make contact with a mental health care provider to make sure that their mental health has been looked after,” he said.

“There are so many other things they can legislate for, I really can’t see why that can’t be part of the process.”

Drs4Drs offers a free, confidential mental health support service for doctors over the phone at 1300 Dr4Drs (1300 374 377).

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