A sharp increase in people raising concerns about regulatory responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including obligations around mandatory vaccination, drove a record number of approaches to the office of the National Health Practitioner Ombudsman (NHPO) during 2021-22, new data has revealed.
The NHPO’s recently released annual report shows it received 1,593 approaches in 2021-22, up 65% from the previous financial year. This included 823 complaints to the Ombudsman, Richelle McCausland, resulting in a 42% spike.
According to the NHPO, which provides a free and independent complaint service and oversight of bodies in the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme, including the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra), the soaring approaches were mostly from people raising concerns about regulatory responses to the pandemic.
The office estimates it received 327 complaints and 190 enquiries related to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021–22. Contact peaked in November 2021, when 269 complaints and 105 enquiries were made, mostly related to COVID-19 vaccinations and joint statements released by Ahpra and the National Boards regarding health practitioners’ obligations around mandatory vaccination.
In its annual report, the NHPO says other pandemic-related factors were also likely to have contributed to the upsurge. For example, the emergence of the pandemic’s longer-term effects such as increased stress and fatigue among health practitioners may have led to more dissatisfaction.
Due to the uncommonly large number of pandemic-related complaints received, it was the first time registration-related complaints and notification-related complaints did not top leading concerns relayed to the NHPO.
Ms McCausland said that the increase in approaches presented her office’s “greatest opportunity” to identify and address issues to create fair and positive change in health practitioner regulation.
“My office is seeing the ongoing effects of the pandemic on community members and health practitioners, and we remain focussed on assisting with concerns about how Ahpra and the Boards have handled matters, including notifications and registration matters,” the Ombudsman said.
While Ahpra took steps to improve its customer service in the financial year, including updating its service charter outlining expectations for engagement, the Ombudsman said areas for improvement still remained, and that her office would continue to particularly monitor issues related to Ahpra’s delays in investigating notifications after immediate action had been taken against practitioners, the fairness of Ahpra and the Boards’ application of the English Language Skills Registration Standard, and the inadvertent disclosure of information about confidential notifiers.
Looking ahead, the Ombudsman is anticipating complaints to continue to rise in the New Year, as her office expects to receive new powers to consider complaints related to accreditation authorities in the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme for health practitioners.
To make a complaint to the NMHPO call 1300 795 265, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.nhpo.gov.au