Medical complaints often not taken seriously

A RECENT Melbourne University study Identification of doctors at risk of recurrent complaints: a national study of healthcare complaints in Australia, paints a stark picture of the nature of doctor complaints in Australia.

It provides a rare national glimpse into what is often a closed world.

Over an 11 year period, researchers looked at 18,907 complaints against doctors and found that just three per cent of doctors accounted for 50% of complaints lodged against Australia's medical workforce.

The doctors out there providing poor care, who are falling through the cracks, are often still able to harm not just one but multiple patients before any serious action is taken.

While this figure is shocking, it is also not surprising, and sadly is reflective of the many medical negligence cases that have come to us over the years.

We have on a number of occasions in Queensland seen clusters of poor care that have left regulators scrambling to fix the problems.

What this study shows is there is the chance to stop the poor conduct in its tracks.

What lessons can be learned from this?

Victims of medical negligence often express frustration that their complaints are either not acted on or face lengthy delays, and in many cases the doctors they have lodged the complaint about are still practising throughout this.

Just recently six Queensland doctors were referred to police for investigation into whether they have committed criminal offences through providing negligent care.

The HQCC recently also put 14 cosmetic practitioners on notice, saying they accounted for almost half of cosmetic procedure complaints lodged over a six year period.

This week the State Government announced a dedicated Queensland Health Ombudsman and also put the Queensland Board of the Medical Board of Australia on notice, welcome moves that will hopefully make it easier for people to lodge complaints and have these acted on.

However, the real onus continues to remain with the relevant regulatory bodies to play their part in taking quick and decisive action to protect patients and stop doctors who provide poor care.

It is a reality that cannot be ignored any more.This is not about criticising doctors and the valuable work that they do. Indeed, the vast majority of doctors do a great job every day in providing excellent care to patients.

What this Australian study gives us is the evidence for regulatory bodies such as the Australian Heath Practitioner Regulatory Agency and the Medical Board of Australia to step up to improve patient safety.

There are suggestions by doctors themselves, that doctors who have more than a certain number of complaints against them should be named and that formal reappraisal should be part of the re-registration process.

These are all options that should be seriously considered.

That knowledge should give regulatory bodies the grounds to act swiftly in targeting these doctors who provide poor care, which should in turn reduce complaints and most importantly, benefit patient safety.This is also in the interests of the medical profession more broadly to ensure that the conduct of a few doctors alone does not mar the standing of the majority who do an excellent job.

Failing to act means patients will continue to be unnecessarily harmed, and patient trust is eroded.

We owe it to the hundreds of patients and families that have had their lives ruined through medical negligence to get this right, and to start taking further action now.


*Sarah Atkinson is a medical negligence specialist at Maurice Blackburn lawyers. She has practised in medical negligence law for almost 20 years in Queensland and the UK.

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