Assaulted at work, then reported to AHPRA

4 minute read

NSW is introducing stronger penalties for assault of frontline healthcare workers. This includes pharmacists, but not GPs.

In May 2020, Adelaide GP Dr Alvin Chua intervened when a patient began verbally abusing a practice staff member.

He ended up seriously injured.

It wasn’t long before Dr Chua was also served with an AHPRA notification, after the patient alleged that being ejected from the practice had exacerbated his existing depression.

“[The patient] was in there, not getting his way and racially abusing [my staff member],” Dr Chua tells The Medical Republic.

“I said ‘Sir, you need to stop, you need to stop now’.”

When Dr Chua threatened to call the police, the altercation turned violent.

“He shoved me backwards and called me an ‘effing Asian bastard’,” the Adelaide GP says.

“I ejected him off the premises.”

According to Dr Chua, who had existing spinal and genetic issues, the injury he sustained from the shove has led to two rounds of neurosurgery, a spinal implant and carpal tunnel surgery.

At just 50 years old, Dr Chua is now facing the possibility of being permanently confined to a wheelchair within the next few years.

The muscles on his left hand are still wasting.

On the day he was going in for his first surgery, a cervical spinal fusion, he heard from AHPRA that the patient had filed a complaint against him.

“It was like, hang on a moment – he comes to my practice, abuses my staff, assaults me and he has the gall to claim that my actions made his depression worse?” Dr Chua says.

In a response to TMR, AHPRA says it appreciates that receiving a notification can be a “very stressful experience” for a health practitioner and that it has taken steps to streamline the handling of potentially vexatious complaints.

“We have undertaken extensive work to help both practitioners and notifiers better understand and navigate the notifications process, including funding third-party support services, and improving the triaging of notifications so as to be able to close notifications that require no further action sooner,” the AHPRA response says.

The regulator ultimately decided that no further action was required; that letter came on the same day as Dr Chua’s second surgery.

Ironically, perhaps, the fallout from the assault plunged Dr Chua himself into depression.

“Healthcare workers are supposed to be there for everybody else, but no one’s there for you,” he says.

“That’s what I’ve learned from this.

“Honestly, it has made me very dark and cynical, and I don’t want to live in that way.”

While patients assaulting doctors isn’t necessarily an everyday occurrence, Dr Chua sees what happened to him as symptomatic of the way the government has undervalued general practice.

“We’ve been the punching bag for the government’s mishandling of the pandemic, mishandling of the rollout of vaccines, mishandling of every bloody thing under the sun, mishandling of not funding Medicare properly, mishandling of the health system having long waiting lists,” he says.

“When it suits them, we’re healthcare workers. When it doesn’t suit them, we don’t get protected at all.”

To add insult to injury, SA police declined to pursue the case.

A police spokesman has confirmed to TMR that, following an investigation, it was determined there was not sufficient evidence to substantiate a charge.

Dr Chua contends that he has video evidence of the assault, along with sworn affidavits from patients and practice staff who witnessed the incident.

Even if the police had pressed ahead with charges, the perpetrator would have gotten off comparatively lightly, just by virtue of having assaulted Dr Chua in a GP clinic rather than a hospital.

In 2019, SA increased the maximum penalties for people who assaulted certain emergency workers.

Under the law, people who cause harm to emergency workers now face up to 15 years in prison.

Quite a few medical personnel are included as emergency workers under the law’s definition: doctors and nurses who work in a hospital, doctors and nurses who do retrieval medicine, any health practitioner attending an out-of-hours or unscheduled consult and paramedics.

GPs are not included.

And SA is not an exception; in NSW, where a similar bill is before parliament, the definition of emergency worker was expanded to include community pharmacists.

In the NSW bill, a “frontline health worker” is defined as a person employed or otherwise engaged to provide medical or other health treatment to patients either in a hospital or in a health institution controlled by a local health district.

Again, GPs are not included.

Says Dr Chua: “Isn’t that a farce?”

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