The case of Psychology Board of Australia v GA highlights the need for practitioners to consider and ensure that they have adhered to all Board-mandated requirements prior to entering into a supervisory role. The case centered primarily on the fact that the respondent psychologist, GA, had acted as a supervisor for a probationary registrant (CS) several years after treating her as a patient.

What was the applicable legislation?

The matter arose from conduct committed between August 2008 and July 2009. The former Psychologists Board of Queensland had commenced dealing with the matter before the National Law commenced operation on 1 July 2010. As such, the matter proceeded pursuant to the (repealed) Health Practitioners (Disciplinary Proceedings) Act 1999 and the (repealed) Psychologists Registration Regulation 2002 (Qld) (Regulation).1  Section 35 of the (repealed) Regulation outlined the eligibility criteria for supervisors of probationary registrants. Section 35(1)(d) provided that supervisors must not have been engaged in a therapeutic relationship with a probationary registrant.

In this case, four years before the supervisory relationship GA had treated CS for anorexia nervosa, borderline personality disorder and self-mutilation. She had decided to act as CS’s supervisor as there were limited options for provisional psychologists in that area and she wanted to assist a fellow employee. Her immediate supervisor acquiesced. The supervision commenced well, but in due course deteriorated, largely due to the change in the relationship from one of therapist-patient to supervisor-trainee. CS then levelled a workplace bullying allegation against GA. The head office investigated and the previous treating relationship was admitted. GA was then dismissed from her employment and a complaint was lodged with the Board.

What were the ethical breaches?

Taking on a former patient as a probationary candidate posed both professional and ethical issues for the practitioner. The inherent conflict in this case should have sounded alarm bells for a fair-minded practitioner. In undertaking a supervisory position with a prior patient, the relationship changed from that of a supportive role to an authoritarian one. This kind of conflict created a loss of independence, impartiality and objectivity in both parties. However, it should be noted that the Tribunal considered that this matter was at the threshold of a breach of the professional standards. During the workplace investigation by her former employer, GA only disclosed the existence of the psychologist-patient relationship. She did not breach her former patient’s confidence. However, CS believed that her current employed had been advised of her previous psychological conditions.

What are the standards for practitioners?

The Psychology Board of Australia (the Board) requires that practitioners adhere to the ‘Guidelines for supervisors and supervisor training providers’ as outlined on the AHPRA website. Practitioners are required to have Board- approved qualifications, meet supervisor competencies and undertaking training programs. There are varying degrees of requirements on supervisors as dependent on whether they are supervising internship programs, registrar programs or higher degree programs. For the purposes of this case, it is applicable to consider the requirements on supervisors of higher degree programs as was undertaken by CS on her pathway to registration. Prior to undertaking a supervisory role for a probationary candidate, practitioners should consider the following:

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What’s the take home message for lawyers?

Interestingly, GA had had a substantial and successful history as a Board-approved supervisor. For over 20 years, GA had successfully supervised over 60 clinicians. Despite her significant experience and participation as a member of the Psychologists Board of Queensland, GA was unaware that a supervisor must not have been previously engaged in a therapeutic relationship with the supervisee. The Tribunal acknowledged GA’s considerable embarrassment resulting from her failure to understand and adhere to that particular rule. This case serves as a reminder to lawyers who represent the regulator, or advise private clients, that even sophisticated, experienced health practitioners, may overlook issues of potential conflict, which would be clearly apparent to an outside observer. This case serves to further reinforce the need for continued vigilance by health professionals and the necessity of ongoing regulation of health professionals by independent bodies.

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