NSW GPs finally protected by workplace violence law

3 minute read

Pandemic-era laws toughened penalties for assaulting frontline healthcare workers but overlooked general practitioners and their staff.

Physically assaulting a GP, practice nurse or receptionist in NSW will now lead to a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment, as the state agrees to expand the definition of “frontline health workers”.

In response to increasing attacks on healthcare workers over the pandemic, South Australia and NSW strengthened laws related to frontline workers and introduced higher maximum penalties for assaulting a health worker.

“The new offences recognise that acts of violence against these workers merit express and distinct recognition and higher penalties than are currently available under the general assault provisions in the Crimes Act 1900,” then-Attorney General Mark Speakman told parliament in 2022.

“While it is already an offence under New South Wales law to assault another person, the offence charged and the maximum penalty depends on the circumstances of the offending … these reforms will create new, bespoke, graduated offences of assault.”

But the NSW definition of frontline health worker was then limited to people employed by a hospital, community health service or community pharmacy.

The definition excluded GPs, something the AMA NSW pointed out in submissions at the time.

“The part I had a real problem with was not [necessarily the deterrent factor] – in the heat of the moment, people are not going to think about the criminal repercussions,” AMA NSW president Dr Michael Bonning said.

“But we wanted the whole healthcare team across the hospital and the community to be included.

“We’re all involved in the care of the patient and we all have to deal with difficult … patients, so it was an opportunity to make sure that the legislation reflected that the whole team was the one who was at risk.”

A statewide survey conducted by the association found that 88% of medical practices had experienced verbal aggression and a further 37% had experienced physical aggression from a patient.

Following the 2023 state election, the AMA NSW worked alongside newly minted Health Minister Ryan Park to amend the act to include all community healthcare workers.

That amendment passed both houses on Wednesday as part of the Health Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2024.

Dr Bonning, a GP in central Sydney, has personally been on the receiving end of patient violence.

It was some years ago, he told The Medical Republic, when he was alone in the practice with just one admin officer and was confronted by the final patient of the day.

“He was a new patient, it was a very challenging consultation where he was seeking a controlled substance … and you could just see him getting more and more and more riled up,” Dr Bonning said.

“And then he just launched forward out of his chair, taking a swing.”

The patient missed, Dr Bonning having sensed the incoming blow just in time.

“In those days you just brushed it off and got back to work, but it is important to recognise that it should not be treated as normal,” he said.

“And that should not be what anyone in healthcare should expect from their workplace or from the legislation that protects them in their workplace.”

Under the new laws, people who assault, throw an object at or otherwise intimidate a doctor in the course of doing their job face up to five years in prison, even if no actual bodily harm is caused.

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