Colleague’s malicious complaint causes suspension

Apr 27, 2017

Losing his wife to cancer affected Dr Brown* significantly. He took extra bereavement leave, had counselling and sought psychiatric help for depression.

After a period of time, he developed a close relationship with one of his colleagues and they eventually announced their engagement. However, Dr Brown was blindsided when he received an anonymous complaint, thought to be from another colleague, calling his professional conduct into question.

Employment matters were the fastest growing type of claim by Avant members last year. There are a wide range of reasons our members contact us for support in employment matters, and disputes with colleagues are one of the most common issues. As in this case, allegations made to an employer are often referred to AHPRA, so doctors can require assistance dealing with both the employer and AHPRA.

Personal issues impact transition to work

After the death of his wife, Dr Brown and his employer agreed on a gradual return to work initially starting with day duty. In time, he returned to night duty and found taking small cat naps on a couple of occasions helped him readjust. With appropriate permission, he also took time out to see doctors and care for his children.

On the first anniversary of his wife’s death, Dr Brown’s symptoms of depression returned and he took another period of bereavement leave during which he sought treatment from a psychiatrist.

Dr Brown had a friendly relationship with two of his female colleagues and eventually started dating one of them. Then they got engaged. The friendship between the trio couldn’t withstand the change in dynamics and the relationship with the friend deteriorated.

Anonymous complaint goes to AHPRA

A few days before Dr Brown was due to go on an overseas holiday, an anonymous written complaint was delivered secretly to his director alleging he came to work smelling of alcohol and boasting of drink-driving. It said he kept falling asleep at his desk, was unable to execute his clinical duties, placing patients at risk of harm and was fraudulently using paid work time to pursue personal interests.

It was clear that whoever had made the complaint knew Dr Brown well and had made the allegations with malicious intent.

The hospital notified AHPRA and decided to suspend Dr Brown while they investigated the allegations. Dr Brown was required to use his annual leave to cover the period of the suspension.

When a letter from AHPRA about his registration went unanswered (while Dr Brown was on holiday) the Medical Board of Australia suspended his registration. As Dr Brown had already been in touch with Avant, his experienced legal counsel responded to AHPRA on his behalf, highlighting that the evidence did not justify his suspension.

Doctor’s suspension overturned

A case was built against the grounds for suspension using key witness evidence from hospital staff. We also challenged the process that was used to suspend Dr Brown.

The Medical Board overturned the suspension and the hospital carried out a rigorous investigation. The hospital’s only criticism was that Dr Brown had been noted to fall asleep at his desk on a few occasions. Dr Brown returned to work. The malicious report against him was dropped and AHPRA closed its file.

While ultimately successful in refuting the allegations and returning to work within a few weeks, the complaint and suspension had a substantial adverse impact upon Dr Brown. Avant pressed the hospital to carry out a detailed investigation into the anonymous complaint, but the hospital felt the matter had been appropriately managed with Dr Brown’s return to work and did not investigate the complaint.

Key tips

This case illustrates how damaging malicious complaints can be for doctors. Just like the member in this case, you can protect yourself by doing the following:

  • If you find yourself suffering stress, anxiety or depression, seek expert advice and treatment.
  • Ensure that you have a number of respected colleagues that you can talk to and use as a support network when stressful situations occur.
  • Advise Avant early on if there are any possible legal implications that may arise in respect to your health or relationships with colleagues, which may lead to a notification to a regulatory body.
  • Maintain good working relationships with directors or managers to whom you report, and be open if there are any issues they ought to be informed about, such as the development of stress and anxiety which may impact your performance.
  • Be proactive and take time off work if you believe this is necessary or a treating doctor suggests it – a week or two off early on can prevent having to take extended time off later.

If you are subject to a complaint, contact our Medico-legal Advisory Service early on 1800 128 268 to obtain expert advice.

Members can also access a confidential counselling service on 1300 360 364 under our Personal Support Program.

Read our new handbook for information on how to deal with complaints and obtain CPD points.

*Names have been changed.

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