«Practitioners are being subjected to investigations for trivial [or non-existent] issues. Practitioner welfare is not considered in any meaningful way. Practitioners have to practice more defensively which in turn negatively affects patient outcomes.
«However, the public isn’t being protected either. Investigations are time-consuming and the 1 per cent of practitioners doing the wrong thing are not effectively managed,» Mr Gardner said.
Mr Gardner claimed he was forced to resign after flagging his concerns with senior figures at AHPRA.
Lawyers representing the regulator accused Mr Gardner of breaching his confidentiality obligations before instructing him to cease and desist, or face legal action.
The legal claims against AHPRA follows two damning reviews and a series of scandals that have raised serious concerns about the agency’s oversight of more than 750,000 health practitioners, including doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, chiropractors and psychologists.
AHPRA is expected to face further scrutiny over its investigation of Hawthorn doctor Con Kyriacou, which was launched in July 2016, but is still months from being finalised.
AHPRA was repeatedly warned about the conduct of Dr Kyriacou, who was charged in December 2018 with 34 serious sexual assault charges, including rape, following a six-week investigation by Victoria Police.
However, there is also widespread disquiet among health practitioners over AHPRA’s apparent failure to correctly assess and triage complaints that have resulted in staff being scrutinised over minor, and sometimes frivolous complaints.
The Age has spoken with two other former investigation staff, who are also set to take action against AHPRA in the Supreme Court or the Fair Work Commission.
They claim that about 25 investigators in AHPRA’s Victoria office were unable to cope with a flood of fresh complaints and a significant backlog of files – with some cases taking up to four years to resolve.
Former AHPRA employees also complain of the agency’s failure to correctly assign risk to patient complaints, which meant some claims of serious malpractice were not pursued with any urgency, while other baseless allegations were investigated and later dismissed.
«People are constantly leaving and their files have to be relocated to investigators who are already overburdened. It’s not a call centre. They are not selling widgets. They are actually dealing in people’s lives. At the moment, the place is chaotic,» one former employee told The Age.
Psychiatrist Dr Helen Schultz was subjected to a «gruelling» investigation for more than three months until AHPRA established the complainant was not her patient at the time of the alleged misconduct.
«The identity of the patient shocked me because I had not seen them for some time and had no idea they were angry at me.
«The nature of the complaint, which I won’t go into, also made no sense. There was a demand for me to be ‘severely reprimanded’ and my receptionist dismissed,» Dr Schultz said.
She said the investigation left her traumatised and prompted her to wind down her private practice in Richmond.
«It is not just that you end up under the scrutiny of a regulator that holds the future of your livelihood in its hands. It also governs your very identity; you as a caring doctor, you as a caring human being,» Dr Schultz said.
One former patient is also critical of AHPRA, but for entirely different reasons.
She made a formal complaint against Dr Kyriacou to AHPRA in August 2016, which is still under investigation despite Dr Kyriacou removing himself from the register of medical practitioners in August 2017.
The 75-year-old doctor was charged last December with a string of sexual assaults spanning more than 30 years, but has strenuously denied the allegations and claims to be suffering from a significant cognitive impairment.
Some of the complainants against Dr Kyriacou have had three different case managers since the investigation began, which has required them to re-tell their stories and caused further trauma.
The former patient said AHPRA should have dealt with the complaints against Dr Kyriacou with greater urgency.
«What really gets me is that AHPRA was aware of his conduct in 2004, 2008 and 2016 but nothing was done until after August 2017, when he handed back his medical registration,» she said.
She said the mental toll of the almost three-year investigation had been enormous.
«Thank goodness the police became involved, or we’d still be waiting for something to happen,» the woman said.
Last year, AHPRA received received 7276 notifications – the largest number recorded in a single year, with Victoria accounting for 2414 new complaints and one of the lowest rates of mandatory reporting.
Aware of concerns about the notification and investigation process, AHPRA surveyed more than 3500 notifiers and practitioners since 2016, which has uncovered widespread dissatisfaction.
More than 70 per cent of complainants said they were unhappy with the process, while more than 90 per cent of health practitioners found the experience ‘very stressful’.
«Over half of those who responded requested more information, greater transparency and regular updates … ‘fairness’ emerged as a strong theme,» AHPRA’s 2017/2018 annual report said.
The survey followed a scathing report in 2015 by KPMG which was commissioned to review AHPRA’s notification process following the death of three babies at the Bacchus Marsh maternity unit of the Djerriwarrh Health Service in 2013.
The agency was strongly criticised over its failure to inform the health department during its 28-month investigation of a complaint against controversial obstetrician Surinder Parhar.
The KPMG report identified a raft of problems with the notification process and culture within AHPRA, including a presumption against sharing information with strategic partners in order to maintain confidentiality even in high risk matters.
«The failure to resolve high risk, high profile and complex notifications in a timely manner continues to be a significant reputational risk for the organisation (AHPRA),» the KPMG report stated.
In 2017, AHPRA announced it had introduced a range of measures in response to the report.
AHPRA has been contacted for comment.
Senior Crime Reporter
Chris Vedelago is an investigations reporter for The Age with a special interest in crime and justice.