Launceston surgeon Gary Fettke’s experience with a Senate inquiry has triggered a warning to all Commonwealth agencies to be careful when dealing with witnesses.
The inquiry, which included a case study of Mr Fettke, found practitioners and victims had lost confidence in the nation’s medical watchdog’s administered process.
“It is not sufficient that the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency is confident that its processes are robust,” the Senate report said.
“Everyone who uses the complaints process must be able to have confidence that the system is fair, rigorous, transparent and timely.”
A statement from the AHPRA said it would consider the Senate’s recommendations.
“The AHPRA and the Medical Board of Australia have noted the report of the Senate Standing Committee on community affairs into complaints management.”
Less than an hour after Mr Fettke gave evidence to the committee on November 1 last year, he was notified of a decision by the Tasmanian Board of the Medical Board of Australia to caution him. Then, on November 16, AHPRA issued a media release about his case.
Mr Fettke, who is an orthopaedic surgeon and advocate of a low carbohydrate diet, wrote to the Senate committee asking them to investigate the board and AHPRA’s handling of his case.
He asked whether the agency and board had breached parliamentary privilege by attempting to intimidate, punish, bully or harass him.
AHPRA advised the committee there was no relationship between the timing of the notification, and that the media release was issued to combat a “level of misinformation” in the media about the case.
The committee could not establish a clear link between Mr Fettke giving evidence to the committee and the issuing of the notice.
“However, from an administrative perspective, issuing the notice on the same day that a witness provided evidence to the committee seems either a remarkable coincidence or a remarkable oversight,” the Senate report said.
The Senate committee made 14 recommendations in its report, tabled on Wednesday evening.
- That AHPRA reviews and amends the way it engages with notifiers throughout the process to ensure they are aware of their rights and responsibilities
- That AHPRA and the national boards develop and publish framework for identifying and dealing with vexatious complaints
- That the COAG Health Council considers whether recourse and compensation processes should be made available to health practitioners subjected to vexatious claims
- That AHPRA and the national boards institute mechanisms to ensure appropriate clinical peer advice is obtained at the earliest possible opportunity in the management of a notification
- That AHPRA immediately strengthens its conflicts of interest policy for members of boards and that the chair of the board should make active inquiries of the other decision makers about actual or potential conflicts of interest prior to consideration of a notification
- That AHPRA develops a transparent independent method of determining when external advice is obtained and who provides that advice
- That AHPRA considers providing greater remuneration to practitioners called upon to provide clinical peer advice
- That AHPRA formally inducts and educates board members on the way the regulatory powers of the board can be used to achieve results that both manages risk to the public and educates practitioners
- That AHPRA conducts additional training with staff to ensure an appropriately broad understanding of the policies it administers and provides staff with ongoing professional development related to the undertaking of investigations
- That the COAG Health Council considers amending the national law to reflect the Psychology Board of Australia’s policy on single expert witness psychologists acting in family law proceedings
- That the COAG Health Council considers making a caution on appellable decision
- That the COAG Health Council considers whether notifiers should be permitted to appeal board decisions to the relevant tribunal
- That AHPRA takes all necessary steps to improve the timeliness of the complaints process and calls on the federal government to consider avenues for ensuring it has the necessary additional resources to ensure this occurs
- That AHPRA institutes a practice of providing monthly updates to complainants and medical professionals who are the subject of complaints