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Complaints system overhaul uncertainty

The nation’s health ministers have put off consideration of a much-anticipated overhaul of the flawed doctors complaints system until August despite evidence it is causing severe distress and anxiety for many medical practitioners.

At its April 17 meeting, the COAG Health Council said consideration of the recommendations of the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme for Health Professionals review conducted by former WA Health Director General Kim Snowball, which is expected to propose changes to the notifications system, had been held over until mid-year.

In submissions to the review, the AMA called for major changes in the way complaints against doctors are handled.

The Association said there needed to be improved screening of complaints and notifications, greater transparency and fairness, and changes to make the scheme more responsive to medical practitioners and accountable to the medical profession.

AMA Vice President Dr Stephen Parnis said the notification process was often arduous and lengthy, with more than 30 per cent of investigations still open after nine months.

There are concerns the findings of the Snowball review have been pre-empted by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, which last year released an action plan of changes to the complaints system.

Dr Parnis said AHPRA wanted more information to be provided to complainants, and a greater focus on improving the experience for consumers, when “in fact, efforts need to be directed to improving the investigation process – that is, the practitioner experience. Medical practitioners and consumers, equally, want a regulatory scheme that is timely, fair, transparent and effective.”

The Snowball review also considered mandatory reporting rules for doctors treating other medical practitioners amid concerns they are deterring people from seeking treatment.

Under the National Law, doctors in all states and territories except Western Australia are required by law to notify the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) if they believe a health practitioner they are treating has practised while drunk or on drugs, has engaged in sexual misconduct, has provided care in a way significantly at odds with accepted professional standards, or has an impairment that could put patient safety at risk.

The AMA has urged that other states adopt WA’s policy of providing an exemption from reporting doctor-patients with an impairment.

Adrian Rollins