The recent sensationalist headlines create a perception that misconduct amongst Australia’s doctors has reached crisis levels. However, when we analysed the real data, you can see why our doctors remain one of Australia’s top two trusted professions.[1]

The Statistics

Every year the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) releases its annual report. The report includes the number of ‘notifications’ received under the National Law.

A notification can be a formal complaint or merely a concern raised regarding a health practitioner’s health, conduct or performance. We have summarised relevant data relating to medical practitioners for the period 2012 to 2016 below.

AHPRA Statistics (excluding NSW)#

Click here to view table

It is important to remember that not every complaint arises because of a wrong on the part of the doctor. The date shows that upwards of 60% of notifications go no further.

Although the number of medical practitioners has consistently increased by approximately 4% each year, the number of notifications does not show a corresponding increase. In fact, the number of notifications resolving without further action being taken (after assessment) is trending upwards.

What does this mean?

Overall this is encouraging for public confidence in the medical profesion. Despite increased numbers of both registered practitioners and investigations, AHPRA as the regulator is finding that fewer notifications require further investigation each year. Perhaps the trend towards increased notifications reflects an increasing awareness on the part of the public of their rights surrounding health care and the complaints process itself.

Nevertheless, doctors like the rest of us are from perfect and one need not look far to uncover some extreme examples of doctors behaving badly.

A "third chance"[2]

An anesthetist began surgery minutes after self-injecting propofol (from the surgery's supplies). He had previously come to attention for stealing and using almost 600 100g Pethidine ampoules between October 2008 and June 2009 despite creating false records to cover his tracks. He then failed to undergo urinary drug screening (a condition which had been imposed by the regulator) 11 times.

Despite this, he was afforded a "third chance" by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. Although, now banned from the operating theatre, he was found to be fit to continue to treat patients as a GP.

Dr Duck[3]

Dr Duck formed an inappropriate relationship with a patient that included taking her to dinner, buying her gifts such as lingerie (which he photographed her in) and having consultations with her at his home.

The patient had a history of methadone use. One evening, whilst with Dr Duck, she collapsed in her hotel room after injecting heroin. Dr Duck remained with her, alone, and failed call an ambulance.

In deciding to ban Dr Duck from practicing for two years, the Western Australia State Administrative Tribunal took into account his "extensive and serious disciplinary history," including his own drug dependency and having used an iPhone torch to perform a pap smear.

Conclusion

Whilst it is easy to be distracted by sensational stories such as the two recent examples above, we can be reassured by the statistics that show that the majority of registered medical practitioners are deserving of the high esteem in which they are held by the general public.