Australian doctors are kept on a short leash. I recently renewed my registration with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA). This annual ritual is always interesting.
Like thousands of other doctors, I first had to fill out an online questionnaire. As usual, AHPRA wanted to know if I had a physical or mental impairment, disability, condition or disorder – including substance abuse or dependence – that would detrimentally affect my capacity to work as a doctor. I was reminded that I’m required by law to declare any impairments.
There were questions about criminal records, compliance with the law, continuous professional development, indemnity insurance, work history and immigration status. I was advised that if I did not give the required information, I could lose my registration.
Finally I dutifully transferred the required $724 into AHPRA’s bank account.
High professional standards
The yearly AHPRA registration procedure symbolises the way doctors are controlled in Australia. Contrary to common belief, doctors allowed little freedom.
Before doctors can prescribe certain medications, they have to call Medicare to get approval. Prescribing habits are monitored. Doctors are audited randomly to make sure billing practices are not out of line with peers. They may be prosecuted if there is a deviation from the average. In most states, doctors have to report colleagues who are not performing optimally.
At the same time, professional medical standards in Australia are high. Take the accreditation standards of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, or the CPD requirements. Both quality assurance programs have become more robust over the years and are continuously being reviewed and improved by the College.
QI&CPD programs recognise ongoing education to improve the quality of everyday clinical practice by promoting the development and maintenance of medical skills and lifelong learning.
Is there a problem?
Why is there still talk about revalidation of doctors? Is the public concerned about the quality of Australian doctors?
The national AMA patient survey indicated that GPs are considered by the public to be trustworthy, knowledgeable and experienced. A large patient satisfaction survey endorsed by the RACGP found there was a very high level of satisfaction with General Practice in Australia.
Another study published in the MJA also showed that patients reported high levels of satisfaction with GP care, and for many years Australian doctors have been in the top three most trusted professions in the annual Roy Morgan research.
Based on numbers from Canada, AHPRA estimates that 1.5 per cent of Australian medical practitioners are performing ‘unsatisfactorily’. I’m not sure Canadian figures can be applied to Australia, but 1.5 per cent of unsatisfactory performers in any group is low. It appears that any potential problem lies with a significantly small minority of doctors.
Carpet-bombing the profession
There are many revalidation models – from strengthening CPD to targeting those at high risk of complaints, to the full- bore version rolled out in the UK. But if the AHPRA tries to identify substandard doctors, carpet-bombing the whole profession is problematic.
Dr Steve Wilson, Chair of the AMA (WA) Council of General Practice, questioned in Medicus magazine whether revalidation would address those who failed to practise to agreed levels. And if it did, he asked, would that be a sign of impairment or does it reflect personal style, or lack of time, training, experience or adequate remuneration?
Competency checks of doctors may sound appealing to the public. I’m sure some politicians will love the rhetoric. But simply copying the UK’s revalidation system would be a mistake.
About 5,000 doctors a year are considering leaving the UK, and many come to Australia. Bureaucracy is one reason they emigrate. The last thing we need in Australia is more regulation, red tape and stressed-out doctors.
Existing quality systems
In recent years, our healthcare system has seen several unsuccessful concepts not supported by evidence. Think for example about the super clinics program and some of the accompanying cost blowouts, delays and disappointing results.
It will be easier and cheaper to build on existing quality assurance systems.
This article has previously been published in Medicus, the AMA(WA) magazine.