It’s easy and free to ruin a doctor’s life

3 minute read

AHPRA launched a program two years ago to identify vexatious complaints, but doctors say the process is no less stressful.

AHPRA’s move to address vexatious complaints may have been too little too late, as both the RACGP and AMA describe growing frustration with the notifications process.

The regulator’s framework, which was published in December 2020, aims to reduce the burden on doctors by instructing staff on how to identify potentially vexatious complaints.

As the initiative passes its second birthday, the National Health Practitioner Ombudsman has opened it up for review.

Doctors’ organisations have not held back.

In its submission, the RACGP said it was “clear that GPs have little faith in AHPRA’s handling of vexatious complaints” and that a majority were struggling with “regulatory burden” in day-to-day practice.

In a November 2022 NewsGP poll of more than 1700 readers, 81% of respondents said they felt AHPRA’s framework was not working effectively, 17% were neutral and just 1% felt that it was working.

The AMA, for its part, pointed to a building frustration with the regulator – not least because doctors are acutely aware that their yearly registration fees go toward paying for the notification system.

“If you want to ruin a doctor’s life, all you really have to do is make a complaint against them and walk away,” AMA spokesman Dr Antonio Di Dio said.

“There will be no consequences against you. Certainly 90 per cent of the time the doctor will be found to have done nothing wrong, but you will have ensured that that doctor has a year of utter misery.”

AHPRA has consistently claimed that less that 1% of the complaints it receives each year are vexatious in nature, a figure which doctors have long disputed as being far too low.

The RACGP now puts that disparity down to AHPRA’s very tight definition of vexatious, which only applies when the notification is entirely without substance and made with the intent to cause distress.

This definition excludes frivolous complaints – which can be equally stressful and time-consuming – because there was no obvious attempt to cause harm to the practitioner.  

Examples include complaints about GPs refusing to provide a mask exemption when none was indicated or refusing to see patients who have arrived late.

A specific critique of the framework is that it states how AHPRA should manage vexatious claims, but doesn’t actually improve the process of managing them, nor does it address the high level of distress among practitioners who receive one.

According to the college, members have reported that vexatious and frivolous notifications have caused strain in their marriage, loss of employment and suicidal ideation.

One potential fix recommended by the RACGP involves introducing penalties for vexatious notifiers, such as a fee payable when lodging a complaint.

The fee would be refundable unless the complaint was found to be vexatious.

Other recommendations included creating an all-doctor council to parse vexatious and frivolous notifications and creating a robust triage system.

It’s worth noting that these last two suggestions have been partly addressed by the initiative announced at the AMA conference in July last year, the national committee triage.

The triage committee aims to identify “low level” complaints which require no further action and funnel them out of the system within six weeks.

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