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<p>Photo Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo Ella Rubeli

Better Health Checks

Checking records of your doctor, pharmacist or other health workers will get you more reliable information, following changes to Australia’s national register — changes prompted by The Global Mail’s reporting.

The national body charged with regulating Australia's health practitioners is implementing major changes to the national register, following a number of problems identified by The Global Mail.

Martin Fletcher, chief executive of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency [AHPRA], says the agency has reacted to criticisms that the register was potentially misleading to the public. He says the board has voted to take action to fix the key problems.

“That is pretty important for tracking a particular practitioner’s history.”

The agency runs the online register where users can check the qualifications and disciplinary history of hundreds of thousands of health practitioners. AHPRA encourages patients, professionals and employers to rely on the register when checking those critical details.

In a February 2012 story, The Global Mail found errors in some of the entries, such as that some practitioners appeared to have clean records when in fact they had been recently reprimanded. The examples included nurses who had been reprimanded for cheating on their English tests, and a pharmacist who had been convicted of defrauding the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

Of greater concern was that the register gave the public the impression that it contained a full disciplinary history of the listed practitioners. We found more than 100 instances where practitioners whose AHPRA records stated they had "no" reprimands, had in fact been reprimanded — in some cases for offences involving violence, sexual impropriety or drug abuse.

In reality, the register was set up to include only reprimands that were handed down after the site launched in July 2010. Experts warned, however, that by giving the impression that it included all reprimands, the register could mislead the public into trusting a practitioner who had been disciplined as recently as June 2010, but whose registration did not reflect that reprimand.

That problem has now been fixed. The site now makes clear that reprimands, which are defined as "a chastisement for conduct; a formal rebuke", only appear if they were handed down after July 1, 2010 — or October 18, 2010 for Western Australia, which was late in joining the scheme.

Another improvement relates to the identification numbers attached to health professionals. Previously, healthworkers — ncluding doctors, nurses, dentists, podiatrists, psychologists and pharmacists — could end up with multiple identification numbers, either because they had come off the register temporarily and were given a new number upon re-registration, or because they had different numbers for general or specialist registrations.

That's problematic if the public or employers use identification numbers when searching healthworkers' records. For instance, if a practitioner has been disciplined, there is a risk that the record would only appear in relation to one, not all, identification numbers associated with that person.

<p>Photo Ella Rubeli</p>

Photo Ella Rubeli

From now on, AHPRA will streamline their system so that each practitioner has just one identification number for their profession, Fletcher says.

"That is pretty important for tracking a particular practitioner's history," he says.

The agency still has work to do. For instance, The Global Mail noted in February that the records of approximately 500 workers were incomplete. Conditions had been placed on these practitioners' registration, but the AHPRA site merely directed users to contact the agency, instead of providing full information.

Fletcher says AHPRA is working to resolve that problem, but for legal reasons must first notify those practitioners that the conditions will be made public.

“I think how the community use and understand the registration status of practitioners is still an area where there’s a lot we can do in terms of raising understanding.”

Fixing all the bugs in a complex system takes time and thought, Fletcher says.

"There isn't a silver bullet here and there isn't a simple answer," he says. "I think how the community use and understand the registration status of practitioners is still an area where there's a lot we can do in terms of raising understanding."

The changes are a welcome improvement, according to Peter Dodd, spokesman on health policy and advocacy at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Sydney.

"You can only report that someone's breaching the conditions on their practice if you know they've got conditions on their practice," Dodd says. "It is very important that they are accurate and that they are accessible because otherwise breaches of conditions could go unreported."

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