A psychologist has been reprimanded for professional misconduct and disqualified from applying for re-registration for eighteen months for his relationship with a female patient1 .
Mr Tunstall worked solely for his private practice as a psychologist from September 2010. From this time to November 2011, he did not receive any formal or informal professional supervision, and did not have any peer consultation arrangements.
In February 2010, the Patient was referred to Mr Tunstall, originally under an Employee Assistance Program, and afterwards under a Mental Health Plan. Mr Tunstall diagnosed the Patient with Dissociative Identity Disorder, and described treating her in reports as “complex, difficult and challenging”.
From May 2010, Mr Tunstall developed a personal relationship with the Patient, which included text messages, personal email messages and trips to outdoor locations. In around October 2010, the relationship between Mr Tunstall and the Patient became more intimate and Mr Tunstall’s marriage ended. Shortly after, in December 2010, the pair started living together, and during this cohabitation, attended relationship counselling.
Notwithstanding this relationship, up until April 2011, Mr Tunstall continued to treat the Patient.
The Patient ultimately ended the relationship in October 2012. In the same year, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) received notifications regarding Mr Tunstall’s conduct with the Patient.
In November 2012, Mr Tunstall stopped working as a psychologist, following which time his registration lapsed. He acknowledged that he had formed a sexual relationship with the Patient and requested that his registration be ‘terminated’.
Proceedings brought by the Psychology Board of Australia
Three years later, in October 2015, the Psychology Board of Australia referred six allegations against Mr Tunstall to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), being that Mr Tunstall had:
1. practised outside the scope of professional competence;
2. failed to seek professional supervision;
3. had a personal relationship with the Patient;
4. had a sexual and romantic relationship with the Patient; and
5. failed to disclose his personal and sexual relationship with the Patient to other professionals.
VCAT reprimanded Mr Tunstall and disqualified him from applying for registration as a registered psychologist for 18 months. The tribunal emphasised that it wanted to send a strong message to health practitioners and the public that it strongly disapproves of such misconduct.
The most significant issue between the parties was the time limit that Mr Tunstall should be prohibited from applying for re-registration as a psychologist. The Psychology Board sought a period of two years, whereas counsel for Mr Turnstall argued for six months. In reaching its decision of 18 months, VCAT considered Mr Tunstall’s written responses and the passing of years between the events in question and the VCAT hearing.
The finding highlights the dangers of practitioners entering into relationships with current or former patients.
In reaching its decision, VCAT focussed on Mr Tunstall’s failure to seek professional supervision, stressing the importance of it, particularly for sole practitioners in a private practice. VCAT reasoned that a supervisor may well have prevented Mr Tunstall from making serious errors, and meant that he was able to provide appropriate psychological services to the Patient and maintain professional boundaries.
The importance of collegiate support and supervision should not be underestimated, particularly in a profession where sole practice is increasingly common but relatively isolated.