Future patients in the dark

14th Apr 2014

Future patients are currently in the dark when it comes to knowing if health practitioners have had complaints lodged about them, or conditions placed upon their practice.

At present, Australians seeking to know information about health practitioners such as GPs, surgeons, psychiatrists and a host of other registered health professionals are largely unaware when professionals are operating with certain conditions placed upon their practice, and it all comes down to a simple internet search.

For Australians seeking medical treatment, most people are now turning to the internet to gain information about health issues and also to find out information about doctors. It is often the first port of call.

Clients go to the internet wanting to gather information about who they are planning to see. They will be directed to various glossy and promotional practitioner websites, but they will not be directed to the Australian Health Practitioner Register Agency (AHRPA): the national regulator that governs the practice of all health practitioners in Australia.

When complaints have been made against health practitioners, or they are found negligent in a court of law, AHPRA, the national regulator, places conditions on practitioners.

Under Australian law, all health practitioners must be registered with AHRPA.

The register includes information about conditions placed upon practitioners when they have had complaints lodged against them by their state Medical Board. These conditions are typically available on the website for up to two to three years, until after the sanctioning period has passed.

The APHRA website does not record all complaints or conditions ever lodged against a doctor.

Sanctions reach their use by date and after that, the sanctions become invisible to the public, with no record that any condition was ever imposed upon that practitioner. If a doctor was sanctioned five years ago, you will never find it as AHPRA considers it necessary to protect the practitioner’s reputation.

In some cases, medical practitioners have had multiple proven complaints made against them which have now expired.

These conditions or sanctions can range from requiring further training and supervision to being prevented from performing certain procedures.

Many Australians that are currently suing for medical negligence had no idea conditions were already placed upon their doctor, surgeon or specialist. These people went on to receive deficient treatment from these practitioners, resulting in a significant injury.

The type of situation can occur where individuals seeking surgeons for complex surgery may inadvertently choose a surgeon with a number of conditions placed upon their practice.

Later, the patient wakes up with surgery that has gone wrong. In suing the doctor, they discover that others have experienced the same process before, from the same doctor.

This has involved people having cosmetic and gynaecological surgery as well as people who have received psychological or psychiatric services.

Currently, there is no requirement that doctors must advertise any conditions that have been placed on their practice on their own website.

Furthermore, conditions placed on practitioners, found only on the AHPRA site, do not appear in a standard internet search, or even in the top 100 search hits.

While the average Australian is punching out search terms in order to obtain information that will ultimately guide their decision to seek treatment from a certain doctor; the information that they are obtaining is incomplete.

Future patients are seeking to be informed about their doctor. But they are wandering in the dark.

Australians seeking health care ought to be provided with clearer information about practitioners who have been sanctioned, so future patients and their families can be properly informed.

Specifically, internet searches of practitioners’ names should also retrieve, within the top five search hits, APHRA’s site about the practitioner that states the conditions placed upon them.

While a recent article in Australian Doctor noted that the regulator had said that an internet search of the words ‘dodgy, criminal’ and the practitioner’s name might reveal the information, this does not go far enough to remedy the situation. This is clearly a foolish notion and is not currently operative anyway.

Academic research in 2013 that studied over 18,000 patient complaints over a 11 year period, revealed that 3% of Australia's medical workforce accounted for 49% of complaints and 1% accounted for a quarter of complaints.

The research also revealed that the number of prior complaints that doctors had experienced was a particularly strong predictor of their short-term risk of further complaints.

There is a need for greater transparency for future patients. This is a reasonable request, and one that would better inform patients.

Who, out of any of us, would want to wake up after surgery worse off, and find out that a simple amendment to an internet search could have changed your life?

Ngaire Watson practices as a barrister in Sydney and specialises in medical negligence. Prior to being admitted to the Bar, Ngaire had over 20 years experience in nursing, providing a unique insight into the cases that she takes on. She is the Australian Lawyers Alliance media spokesperson on medical law.  She tweets at @RN_Barrister. 

To view details of the AHPRA register, including conditions placed upon an individual doctors practice, search the AHPRA register.

For further information, see ‘Google search doesn’t reveal doctors’ bad behaviour listed on AHPRA site’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 2014.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Compensation Health, medicine and law Ngaire Watson