Former investigator “whistleblowers” have told a media program the public is not being adequately protected – but AHPRA says it responds to all notifications as quickly as possible
Two former AHPRA investigators and a patient have spoken to ABC program 7.30 Report about what they believe are issues in the way the organisation approaches complaints.
A Queensland woman shared her story about a “horrendous” experience during an internal examination by a specialist doctor, which led to her filing a police report.
She said that after the Health Ombudsman passed her case to AHPRA, the agency informed her it wouldn’t investigate the case until the police investigation was complete.
“I was a little confused because for me, I’m thinking, patient safety – priority,” the woman told the program, adding that she didn’t hear back from AHPRA about her case for nearly a year, until the ABC contacted the agency about it.
David Gardner, who was a senior AHPRA investigator and manager until mid-last year, said that while he was not directly involved in the case, in his experience “there’s no real need for them to have not investigated it, and they should have investigated it for public safety reasons”.
AHPRA responded in a statement: “If a notification raises issues about possible criminal behaviour, we liaise with the police. Police investigations take priority over regulatory matters. This is to protect the integrity of police investigations and reduce the impact on victims.
“As soon as the police give us the go-ahead, we can take regulatory action,” the agency explained.
“In the case referenced by the 7.30 program, in the face of our proposed regulatory action, the practitioner decided to surrender their registration. This means they cannot practise as a doctor anywhere in Australia.
“Although the police have closed their investigation, our inquiries continue.”
However AHPRA said it recognised that its communication with the notifier “was not good enough and we have apologised to her”.
Mr Gardner raised issues of understaffing at the agency.
“The public is not being adequately protected. There are some practitioners out there who pose a great risk and they’re not being properly monitored or being investigated quickly,” he said.
According to 7.30 Report, Mr Gardner is now suing the agency, alleging it managed him out for raising too many concerns.
Toby Latcham, another former AHPRA investigator, mirrored Mr Gardner’s comments.
“If you have a concern about a doctor, if you’ve been harmed or if there is a risk of harm, we won’t substantively respond to that risk for months,” he said.
“We’re too busy trying to put out fires, we’re too busy trying to keep our head above water.”
AHPRA pointed out that there are around 740,000 registered health practitioners in Australia and it receives around 7000 notifications each year.
The agency says it has improved its operations and increased staffing in the past 18 months to deal with the large workload.
“The usual caseload for our investigators is now between 25 and 30 matters at any one time. We have increased our staff numbers, with 362 staff working nationally on notifications and offences, in response to this growing demand and we continue to make changes, including introducing new, national models of working.”
Claims by Mr Gardner are being dealt with in the Federal Circuit Court, and therefore cannot be commented on, AHPRA said.
The agency has been under fire in recent months.
Earlier this year it was forced to respond to controversy following the attempted murder of a pharmacist, after she made a notification about a doctor with concerns about his prescribing practices.
The doctor was sentenced to 15 years’ jail with a non-parole period of 10 years.
During our coverage of the story, readers shared their concerns about the safety of notifiers, asking why pharmacists were not protected when reporting prescribers.
In response, AHPRA asked the independent National Health Practitioner Ombudsman and Privacy Commissioner Ms Richelle McCausland to work with them to review its policies and procedures in relation to safeguarding the confidentiality of notifiers “and any additional steps we may need to take”.
A report on the review findings is expected soon.
“AHPRA has committed to publishing the key observations from the review, any recommendations and our response to those recommendations,” a spokesperson from AHPRA told AJP.
“The information we collect in the form of notifications is invaluable to our regulatory role. We want it to be safe for people to report their concerns about individual practitioners and will continue to review our policies and processes in light of relevant findings.”