ANTHONY PUN. Bullying in the public health system.

The formation of the Australian Health Reform Association (AHReform) is triggered by the need to have a community organisation with members from all healthcare professions to help create a safer working environment for all healthcare professionals so that they can provide the highest standard of care for healthcare consumers.  This article introduces the subject of medical bullying which is widespread in Australia and AHReform’s proposal on how to effectively reform the healthcare system to reduce the incidence of depression and suicides among medical practitioners. 

The subject of “medical bullying” came into the public arena when public submissions on this issue were called for by the Australian Senate.  There were over 120 submissions,  which are worth reading to be aware of this serious problem plaguing our healthcare regulatory system. These included submissions from organisations like the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Health Professionals Australia Reform Association (HPARA), Committee of Presidents of Medical Colleges, BeyondBlue, Health Care Consumers Association of the ACT, the Multicultural Communities Council of New South Wales and the Chinese Community Council of Australia.

The subject matter has been raised many times by various sources and this time in “Cries for help: NSW public health workers bullied and harassed”  in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) on 31 October 2018.  The news report focused on the NSW public health system only but, from what AHReform observed, the problem is  happening nationwide.

Prof Ian Hickie, the former Mental Health Commissioner, described the toxic bullying culture in the NSW public health system as only the tip of the iceberg.  He said that “This not only affects the people providing care, but the patients are affected as well…the health service couldn’t afford to have such a high level of dysfunction”.  This is not an isolated criticism as bullying has been going on for several years and there has been a resulting parliamentary inquiry.  Despite numerous public submissions, there seems to be no remedy in sight.

In the wake of this entrenched bullying culture plaguing our healthcare industry, AHReform has recently been formed to represent and advocate on behalf of the community for a fair, just, equitable, efficient and safe healthcare system for medical and allied health care practitioners and consumers.

AHReform welcomed the SMH report on the extent of bullying in the public health sector.  It has helped  create public awareness of the existence of a culture of bullying in the public health system.  Suicides due to medical bullying among medical practitioners are well known and must be addressed as a matter of priority.

Prof Steve Robson, the President of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, wrote a courageous article on MJA InSight on 22 October 2018, sharing his personal experience on the brink of committing suicide because of professional bullying. In his article entitled “Learn from me: speak out, seek help, get treatment”, he called for fellow doctors to not suffer in silence and to support each other. AHReform applauds his call to speak out.

AHReform is painfully aware of the plight of the victimised doctors in seeking natural justice from the complaint system particularly when the complaint is vexatious.  In this context, AHReform is seeking ways to address the problems, to rectify the deficiencies and flaws within the health regulatory systems and to relieve the sufferings caused by professional bullying that torment the victims’ body and soul. Reform is badly needed to ensure a safe environment for all healthcare professionals so all can contribute efficiently to a high standard of patient care.

In August 2018, AHReform started a petition which attracted 7,000 signatures to Hon Greg Hunt, the Minister of Health, to urgently take action to reform the regulatory practices of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) and the Medical Board of Australia.

AHReform welcomed the action by AHPRA CEO, Mr Martin Fletcher, when he wrote a column in the Medical Observer on 23 August 2018, pledging to fast-track investigation to achieve quicker outcomes for all notifications; to provide informative regular updates; and to build a more humane regulatory system. AHReform shall monitor AHPRA’s progress to see whether Mr Fletcher’s pledge comes to fruition.

The resignation of Dr Joanna Flynn as the Chair of the Medical Board of Australia in August 2018 heralds a leadership change in the Medical Board and hopefully brings a new era in our medical regulatory system as we look forward to a more positive, engaging and caring attitude by the Medical Board.

If this bullying culture continues to torment our healthcare professionals, a royal commission into this problem may be the best way forward to address this so that we can achieve a better healthcare system for all Australians and a safe working environment for all healthcare professionals.

Anthony Pun, OAM, PhD, is the current President of AHReform.

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3 Responses to ANTHONY PUN. Bullying in the public health system.

  1. Joan Seymour says:

    I’m not from NSW, and I’ve never heard of this problem before. This may be why I don’t understand the article at all. Who is doing the bullying, and in what circumstances? Doctors are being bullied, apparently, but how does the ‘culture’ facilitate this? I’ll be interested to hear more detail on this.

    • Jim Kable says:

      Not peculiar to NSW! I watched some years back a British hospital-based reality series – the surgeon a nasty piece of work -Ho!Ho! Jolly rebuking of the students he was taking on ward rounds – belittling them in front of their peers – and other staff and the patient around whose bed they were arranged. Bullying always comes from the one securely in charge and flows to juniors without the power – it happens in every kind of workplace – think the suppository of wisdom in Canberra, an English (other faculty head) Head Teacher of his or her staff – an Army NCO of lower ranks – officers likewise. Think any group where a boss/section chief encourages sycophancy!

  2. Jim KABLE says:

    It’s Melbourne Cup Day. My wife and I supporting a friend attending her restaurant for the special Melbourne Cup luncheon. Frivolous but enjoyable. I won the best dressed male. Therefore other prizes including a lucky door prize. We’ll give it back to be re-drawn if our ticket comes up – we decided. Which is exactly what happened. The woman who won the redraw is a nursing sister at Royal Newcastle. So you’ll know one of my old students from a high school in Port Stephens I said. I named him. An ENT surgeon. Yes – her eyes lit up. We mentioned the Sydney teaching hospitals and bullying. Not him, she declared. I judge surgeons/doctors by the way they treat their patients and by the way they teach their staff. He is tops. And we shared together why we were unsurprised to hear such praise. An important grand-mother, mother and older sisters! Among other things!

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