Call for colleges to open up over bullying complaints

3 minute read

APHRA will make it easier to act against vexatious complainants


Senate committee has called on medical colleges to publish information on bullying complaints after an inquiry focused on vexatious notifications.

It said hospitals should adopt a zero-tolerance policy to bullying, and specialist colleges should report annually on the number of bullying complaints received about members and trainees and the sanctions against them.

The Community Affairs References Committee looked into claims that medical professionals have misused the complaints processes overseen by AHPRA and the national boards.

It unearthed some “worrying evidence”, indicating a culture of bullying that urgently needs addressing, committee chair and Greens Senator Rachael Siewart said.

“Evidence suggested the medical complaints process run by AHPRA is being used as a harassment tool, with claims that some medical professionals are using the complaints process in a troublesome way, causing considerable stress.

“We heard of medical professionals having vexatious claims lodged against them as a means of harassing them.”

The committee noted there was no redress for medical practitioners who were the victims of vexatious complaints by colleagues.

Several medical practitioners, including Tasmanian surgeon Dr Gary Fettke, told the committee that AHPRA investigators lacked medical qualifications and the ability to judge whether a complaint was vexatious.

Of the 3147 notifications about medical practitioners AHPRA received in 2015-16, just under 12% were lodged by fellow medical practitioners. The ratio was higher for nurses and midwives at 43% of 1435 complaints.

AHPRA chief executive Martin Fletcher told the inquiry Melbourne University researchers had looked at 850 mandatory notifications in a 12-month period and found “fewer than six” met criteria for a vexatious complaint. But he said the regulator would toughen its code of conduct to make it easier to take action against someone who made a complaint purely to damage another practitioner.

AHPRA also revealed plans to launch an online portal for complaints which would ask the notifier to declare their complaint was true and correct to the best of their belief.

Dr Don Kane, chair of the advocacy group Health Practitioners Australia Reform Association, said it was “very rare, if ever” that AHPRA acted against vexatious complainants. “There is an absolute abuse of the mandatory notification process.  It was put in there in the guise of being in the public interest, but really it is in the interest of the people making the complaint.”

The committee urged universities to provide compulsory education on bullying and harassment and take responsibility for students on clinical placements.

The committee now begins follow-up investigation of the complaints mechanism under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law, for which submissions are to be lodged by February 24, 2017.

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