A six-month Four Corners investigation has found Australia’s system of health regulation allows some doctors with serious findings against them to continue to treat patients.
Our review of a decade of published disciplinary decisions found:
- Four convicted paedophiles are still registered as doctors (none of whom are featured in this story)
- Nearly 500 practitioners with findings against their name related to sexual conduct involving patients
- Almost 200 health workers who have been disciplined for related matters outside their direct practice, for example, sexually harassing colleagues
- Doctors make up just 15 per cent of all registered health workers, but they account for almost half of those disciplined for sexual misconduct
- More than one-third of all publicly disciplined practitioners are still on the national register
In most states and territories, the reasons why someone has been allowed to return to practise after losing their registration for serious wrongdoing are not made public.
The conditions often placed upon practitioners with proven disciplinary findings against their name — like mandatory education on professional boundaries — have also never been independently tested to make sure they actually work.
The vast majority of Australia’s 850,000 registered health professionals do the right thing, but those who breach their patients’ trust can inflict serious harm.
The former head of the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission, Merrilyn Walton, believes the only appropriate action in response to proven sexual misconduct is to remove a person’s registration.
“Sexual relationships with patients has always been zero tolerance,” Professor Walton says.
“To me, there comes a time when the regulators say, ‘Enough is enough. You do this, you’re out’.”
- AHPRA investigates complaints for 15 professional boards, such as the Medical Board and the Nursing and Midwifery Board
- HCCC manages most NSW complaints
- OHO co-manages Queensland complaints
- Independent state and territory tribunals consider facts and final sanctions for the most serious matters
- While regulators investigate complaints, they can only recommend actions for professional boards or councils to take
- The system isn’t set up to punish doctors, its role is to assess whether patients are at risk
With the support of his parents, Tom notified police and AHPRA of the assaults by Dr Churchyard, hoping to protect future patients.
But the Medical Board permitted Dr Churchyard to continue to practise while under investigation on the condition he treat male patients under the supervision of a chaperone.
His registration wasn’t suspended until another man notified the regulator he too had been allegedly assaulted.
In a rare public interview, AHPRA chief executive Martin Fletcher says there are “huge lessons to learn” from the handling of the Churchyard matter.
AHPRA and the Medical Board commissioned an independent review into the use of chaperones in 2016, and has since scrapped the use of mandatory chaperones and established a specialist committee that deals with sexual misconduct complaints.
“Five years, six years later, the way we deal with these sort of concerns is completely different from what happened back in 2016 and before,” Mr Fletcher says.
Andrew Churchyard took his own life in 2016, facing charges of indecent assault.
Using freedom of information laws, Tom’s mother extracted information from AHPRA on Dr Churchyard’s disciplinary history — discovering a similar complaint had been lodged with the former Medical Board in 2006. The doctor was reprimanded, cautioned, and ordered to undertake further education.
Sharon has since been contacted by other men alleging further sexual assaults.
“I spoke to a man who had seen Churchyard for years for migraine and the treatment that he was being offered was masturbation,” she says.
More than 50 former patients settled with his estate.