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The college is calling for feedback to help inform a review of the national health watchdog’s complaints framework.

GP receiving complaint
The National Health Practitioner Ombudsman is reviewing the implementation of AHPRA’s vexatious notifications framework.

Since the establishment of the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme in 2010, a lot of debate has focused on the impact complaints and vexatious notifications can have on health practitioners.

 

Dr Edwin Kruys, a member of the RACGP Expert Committee – Funding and Health System Reform, told newsGP that although these complaints are ‘probably a very small percentage’ of the total number of notifications GPs receive, they can cause a lot of distress.

 

‘True vexatious complaints are clearly misuse of the AHPRA complaints process and must be dealt with in accordance with AHPRA’s vexatious notifications framework,’ Dr Kruys said.

 

‘Detection of vexatious complaints is not always easy, but it is also important that health professionals are confident that AHPRA staff follow the right steps to identify and quickly deal with these kinds of complaints, and for example not just assume misapplication of the vexatious defence.’

 

To help deal with the issue, in December 2020, AHPRA released A framework for identifying and dealing with vexatious notifications (the Framework) – supported by the RACGP – which emerged from recommendations driven by a 2017 review into safeguarding the confidentiality of people making notifications.

 

Now, the National Health Practitioner Ombudsman is calling for new feedback as part of an independent review into the Framework’s implementation.

 

To inform the RACGP submission, the college is seeking member feedback on the vexatious notifications process, including any recent experience with the notifications process, especially since December 2020.

 

The Ombudsman’s two-part review will examine AHPRA’s approach to identifying and managing vexatious notifications and make recommendations where necessary, taking into consideration whether the framework has been effective or had any unintended consequences.

 

AHPRA’s Framework details the significant impacts vexatious notifications ‘are likely’ to have

on practitioners, including: 

  • stress and anxiety
  • damage to reputation and career
  • fear or apprehension for self and family
  • feelings of being under attack, victimised and/or powerless
  • emotional exhaustion
  • mental and physical health impacts
  • financial damage.

The RACGP believes that GPs are at risk of being ‘scapegoats’ in the notifications process and the associated mental health impacts can be significant.
 
Dr Kruys says the early identification of vexatious complaints is vital.
 
‘It is important to identify at an early stage ulterior motives other than patient safety concerns by being alert to any previous personal or commercial relationships between the parties,’ he said.
 
‘If a complaint is proven to be vexatious, the medical board will take action against the complainant.’
 
In a 2021 submission to AHPRA on the revision of regulatory principles for the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme, college President Adjunct Professor Karen Price outlined members’ reports of the negative effects on their mental health and wellbeing during the ‘lengthy process’, particularly in relation to ‘vexatious or trivial complaints’.
 
‘The RACGP sees that to put patient safety first, systems that are fair and supportive to practitioners are essential,’ she wrote.
 
In recognition of the sensitivity and controversy around vexatious notifications and complaints, the college wants to ensure member feedback is captured to inform its submission to the watchdog’s review.
 
‘As with all AHPRA notifications, communication, transparency and timeliness are key to avoid unnecessary stress,’ Dr Kruys said.
 
‘There are still case reports coming though suggesting room for improvement in AHPRA’s approach.
 
‘Therefore, feedback from members is, as always, essential for the RACGP to identify potential issues and provide an informed response to this submission.’ 
 
All feedback on AHPRA’s vexatious notifications process can be sent to healthreform@racgp.org.au by Monday 14 November. All feedback will be deidentified prior to inclusion in the RACGP’s submission.
 
Following consultation with health practitioners and stakeholders, the Ombudsman review’s draft report – including scope, method, findings and recommendations – will be provided to AHPRA at the end of 2022. The review’s report and AHPRA’s response will be published together.
 
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By GIL