Changes to the regulation of health practitioners foreshadowed

Doctor in face mask and face shield looks into the middle distance.

Over the course of 2022 there has been an intense focus on the regulation of the health sector, and in particular medical practitioners. This has arisen from the 2021/2022 Senate inquiry into the administration of registration and notifications by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) and related entities under the National Law (Inquiry), and the current media attention on cosmetic surgeons and the cosmetic surgery industry.

In this two-minute read, Melanie Nicol and Amanda Seguna touch upon the findings of the Senate inquiry and what is expected to follow.

The Senate inquiry

In April 2022, the Senate Standing Committees on Community Affairs released a report following the inquiry containing 14 recommendations concerning the regulation of health professionals and practitioners. Specifically, it was recommended that:

  1. the use of the title "surgeon" be regulated;
  2. AHPRA and the National Boards introduce a more flexible re-registration model across professions that would enable health practitioners to more easily re-enter the workforce after a period of absence;
  3. the Ministerial Council consider whether the National Regulation and Accreditation Scheme should be expanded to other individuals within the health sector, including social workers, aged care workers and personal care workers;
  4. AHPRA undertake urgent and immediate action in relation to supervisory failures to ensure that individual cases are not indicative of a systemic failure;
  5. all supervisors have a direct point of contact within AHPRA and that this point of contact should be made available prior to any contractual arrangements being made, as well as throughout the entire supervisory period;
  6. AHPRA reviews and simplifies its published information about notifications and other complaint pathways;
  7. AHPRA and the National Boards undertake education and awareness activities to explain notifications and other complaint pathways to health practices and services;
  8. the Ministerial Council consider reforms to the National Law to enable health practices and services to be referred low-risk notifications to be dealt with in the first instance, and that AHPRA and the National Boards have discretion to refuse these matters on that ground;
  9. notifications accepted by AHPRA be limited to clinical issues relating to patient safety;
  10. AHPRA and the National Boards consider improving the notifications data it collects and publishes to better understand where protracted timeframes are experienced and the reasons for delays;
  11. AHPRA undertake an analysis of the cause of protracted notifications timeframes and identify ways to further improve timeliness, including consideration of the potential delegation of certain powers by the National Boards to AHPRA and the allocation of resources to deal with increasing numbers of complaints;
  12. AHPRA and the National Boards develop and publish a strategy for identifying systemic issues and working with stakeholders to proactively address areas of concern;
  13. the Ministerial Council agree to remove the current mandatory reporting requirements and align the approach with the Western Australian model; and
  14. AHPRA and the National Boards develop and fund a comprehensive strategy for providing tailored support for the notifications process to practitioners in all regulated professions.

Following the release of this report, there has been continued intense focus on the functioning of AHPRA and the National Law as well as media scrutiny surrounding medical practitioners, presenting themselves as "surgeons" and in particular "cosmetic surgeons".

Where to from here?

We await to see which of the Senate inquiry's 14 recommendations will be implemented and the mechanism by which this will occur.

Some changes to the National Law were outlined in the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 introduced in Queensland state legislature in May 2022. However, the amendments provided for in the Bill, including the removal of the prohibition of the use of testimonials when advertising a health service, have been controversial and the Bill has yet to be passed.

We consider that, given the intense public focus on "cosmetic surgeons", the timing of any regulatory change within the health sector is not likely to occur until after the outcome of the independent external review of patient safety issues in the cosmetic sector has been released and digested. This is anticipated to occur in September 2022.

Key takeaway

At this juncture, we know that changes are coming to the regulation of the health sector, and these changes are likely to encompass the complaints notification process, the supervision regime under the National Law, the use of the title "surgeon", and the advertisement of health services. Additionally, further professions may also become subject to the National Law.

We watch this space with great interest and anticipate that the coming year will see the implementation of many of the changes flagged for regulation of the health sector.

For more information on how the anticipated changes may affect your organisation, please contact a member of our team.

Photo by Jan Vasek on Unsplash.

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