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Out of the shadows: Professional Standards Committee hearings

Brian C McCaughan
Med J Aust 2002; 176 (8): 400.
Published online: 15 April 2002

In reply: A Medical Board's role is to protect the public by ensuring that appropriate standards of conduct and practice are maintained by registered medical practitioners. In New South Wales, the NSW Medical Board administers the disciplinary provisions under the Medical Practice Act 1992 (NSW). Included in this legislation is the Medical Tribunal/Professional Standards Committee (PSC) model that has been the subject of comment in recent correspondence. It is important to note that the Medical Board, the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC), the Medical Tribunal and PSCs are all independent bodies in their own right.

The Medical Board welcomes constructive comment on the system and its administration. It meets regularly with the major parties (HCCC, United Medical Protection, and the Australian Medical Association [AMA] as the doctors' professional body) to discuss the workings of the disciplinary system, to identify problems and shortcomings, and to develop solutions.

Inevitably, there will be aspects of the process that participants do not like — who enjoys being taken to court, in any circumstances? As in all legal and quasi-legal processes, the parties are unlikely to uniformly praise the impartiality or quality of witnesses, experts, and the judiciary. Processes are in place to minimise the possibility of conflict of interest, or the perception of bias. On the rare occasion when a panellist is challenged, a conservative approach is generally taken, and a replacement found.

Heber raises concerns about an inquiry extending beyond the parameters of the original patient complaint. In a protective jurisdiction, it would be quite wrong to limit a case to what the complainant had been able to articulate. Not infrequently, a patient's unhappiness is focused on what, from a medical perspective, is relatively minor, while seriously poor conduct or practice is not recognised as such. The legislation specifically envisages an "inquiry", which, subject to natural justice requirements, may go beyond the original complaint. To deny this would be inconsistent with the protective nature of the jurisdiction.

The issues raised by Dawson and Gorman concentrate on procedures adopted by the HCCC regarding peer review and representation before hearings. The Board understands that the HCCC has a detailed policy document, prepared in consultation with stakeholders including the AMA and United Medical Protection, regarding the selection and utilisation of peer reviewers and expert witnesses. The Board is also aware of wider concerns in the legal system regarding the use of "hired guns" as distinct from impartial peers or experts, and when concerns have been brought to its attention suggesting even a perception of bias it has taken steps to address them.

The Board and members appointed to sit on PSCs and Medical Tribunals take their roles very seriously, and do so with a sense of professional responsibility, while acknowledging the difficulty of sitting in judgement on their peers. Criticisms are carefully considered and practices changed where appropriate. At all times, the Board must ensure that it acts fairly and in accordance with its charter of public protection.

  • Brian C McCaughan3

  • New South Wales Medical Board, Gladesville, NSW

Correspondence: MAL@doh.health.com

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