Cosmetic cowboys threaten patients with lawsuits 

4 minute read

Callers to AHPRA’s new hotline have made disturbing allegations, the agency says.

Health practitioners have threatened legal action against patients who post negative online reviews and against other practitioners who make public statements about them, callers to AHPRA’s cosmetic surgery hotline have alleged. 

Patients have also declined to file complaints for fear of legal action being taken against them, AHPRA told TMR earlier today. 

“We’re concerned of reports to our cosmetic surgery hotline that some practitioners have threatened legal action against notifiers who are wanting to make a complaint,” a spokesperson for AHPRA and the National Boards said. 

Alleged behaviour reported to the hotline includes: 

  • practitioners who have threatened or initiated civil proceedings in response to public statements by other practitioners (not directly related to complaints) 
  • practitioners, or their staff, who have implied or threatened legal action in response to negative online reviews by patients 
  • patients who have indicated that they were unwilling to make a notification due to the practitioner threatening legal action 
  • practitioners, or their staff, harassing or intimidating other practitioners who are notifiers or potential witnesses 
  • practitioners providing revision surgery, refunds or settlements which require patients to sign a non-disclosure agreement or release document (some of these documents require patients to agree to not disclose their dissatisfaction)  

The cosmetic surgery hotline forms part of AHPRA’s response to an independent review of the cosmetic surgery industry released earlier this year. It supports a recently established enforcement unit, which comprises two investigation teams and an advertising compliance team, as well as legal, clinical and administrative support staff. 

The hotline has received 77 calls, generated 15 investigations, and resulted in six matters being referred to other regulators since its launch on 5 September. In addition, 18 practitioners have been put on notice for potential advertising breaches as a marketing audit progresses. 

All up, AHPRA created more than 20 new positions to staff the unit, which now handles all notifications and advertising complaints related to cosmetic surgery. 

Other elements of the AHPRA response include an online cosmetic surgery hub, new guidance materials, an advertising audit, a special issues committee overseen by the medical board, an oversight group and a new set of draft standards and guidelines. 

AMA vice-president Dr Danielle McMullen told TMR the association supported the mechanisms put in place by AHPRA, including the confidential hotline. 

“We want to make sure that patients feel safe and supported to report when they think that there may have been inappropriate practice,” Dr McMullen said, “and that goes for patients and other doctors [when they see] the outcomes of care provided by inappropriately trained practitioners. 

“[It’s important] there are mechanisms to report that, and the regulatory process is resourced to make sure that, in a timely fashion, those reports are acted upon and the outcomes made clear.” 

AHPRA advises that patients who are concerned about some aspect of their cosmetic surgery should generally start with the practitioner who provided the service. 

Sometimes when a patient and practitioner are able to resolve a concern, the patient will sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). While the patient might still want to lodge a complaint, AHPRA does not provide definitive advice on how an NDA might affect this. 

“We think that NDAs do not prevent patients from making a notification,” AHPRA notes on the hotline home page. “However, if you have signed an NDA and want to make a notification to AHPRA, we encourage you to check with your lawyer to make sure they have no concerns about you raising your concern with us in a notification.” 

Threatening legal action to prevent patients or other practitioners making a notification “is likely to lead to regulatory action and may even be considered professional misconduct,” the spokesperson told TMR

“If patients or practitioners are experiencing or witnessing this intimidation, please report it. Anyone, including practitioners, who makes a notification or assists with our enquiries in good faith is protected from civil, criminal or administrative liability under the National Law.” 

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