Review needed into doctors’ freedom of speech: AMA president

The AMA’s new leader is calling for a national conversation about doctors’ freedom of speech, saying the profession is being treated with a different set of rules to the rest of the country.

Professor Steve Robson

In one of his first interviews after taking on the AMA’s federal presidency, Professor Steve Robson admitted he was unsure “exactly where the balance lies” but said he was troubled by the growing tendency of regulators to become involved when doctors share their views online.

“I don’t think AHPRA have the balance right, which is why I’m putting it on the agenda with them,” he told the limbic.

“I think we run the risk at the moment that doctors will be afraid to say what they think and that is not a healthy situation. We need to encourage debate and doctors have an important voice.”

It comes after the Medical Board of Australia ordered high-profile GP Dr David Berger to undergo a six-hour program of education on “behaving professionally and courtesy to colleagues” back in June, following a complaint about comments he had posted to his 35,000 Twitter followers.

The board has not said which posts were the subject of the complaint, nor who was behind it, although media reports have stated it related to “undermining public trust in the integrity of politicians”. Over the previous two years, Dr Berger had been an outspoken advocate for tougher pandemic controls and a critic of the Federal Government’s response to COVID-19.

Professor Robson declined to share an opinion on the order, which was stayed earlier this month by Western Australia’s State Administrative Tribunal pending the outcome of a formal appeal.

But it had renewed a debate on the freedom of doctors to engage in public policy debates, he said.

“Fundamentally I’m against doctors being gagged and prevented from joining online discussions or discourse,” he said.

Professor Robson, an obstetrician and gynaecologist from Canberra, stressed he wasn’t calling for a free-for-all, adding he supported the regulator’s role in addressing misinformation put out by registered health practitioners when it was potentially dangerous.

“My personal view is that rigorous debate about health and health research is really important, and the ability to deal with misinformation is also very important,” he said.

“But it is not clear to me where the boundaries lie when you are looking at things like politeness and courtesy when people are using social media.”

“So that’s one of the things I want to talk to AHPRA about and I’m putting it on the agenda at [the AMA’s] federal council.”

Dr David Berger’s registration conditions
On 5 August 2022, the SAT (the Tribunal) stayed, the National Special Issues Committee (the Board/Committee) decision of 7 June 2022, to impose conditions on the practitioner’s registration.

The effect of the Tribunal’s orders is to cease the operation of the conditions imposed on the practitioner’s registration by the Board, from the date of the Tribunal’s orders until the date the practitioner’s Review Application is determined.

Undertake education
1. The Practitioner must undertake and successfully complete a program of education, approved by the Medical Board of Australia and including a reflective practice report, in relation to behaving professionally and courteously to colleagues and other practitioners including when using social media in accordance with Good medical practice: a code of conduct for doctors in Australia.

2. Within twenty one (21) days of the notice of the imposition of these conditions, the Practitioner must, on the approved form (HPN24), nominate for approval by the Board or Ahpra an education course, assessment or program (the education) addressing the topics required. The Practitioner must ensure:
a. The nomination includes a copy of the curriculum of the education, and
b. The education consists of a minimum of six (6) hours.

3. The Practitioner must provide evidence to Ahpra of the successful completion of the education within six (6) months of the notice of the Board or Ahpra approval of the education.

4. Within six (6) months of the completion of the education, the Practitioner is to provide:
a. Evidence of successful completion of the education, and
b. A report demonstrating, to the satisfaction of the Board, that the Practitioner has reflected on the issues that gave rise to this condition requiring they undertake education and how the Practitioner has incorporated the lessons learnt in the education into the Practitioner’s practice.

5. Within 21 days of the notice of the imposition of these conditions the Practitioner must provide to Ahpra, on the approved form (HPC), the contact details of a senior person, such as the Director of Medical Services, Director of Nursing, Senior Practice Manager, Senior Manager, Senior Partner, Proprietor, Owner, or equivalent (the senior person) at each current place of practice. In providing this form, the practitioner acknowledges that Ahpra will contact the senior person and provide them with a copy of the conditions on the practitioner’s registration or confirm that the senior person has received a copy of the conditions from the practitioner. The practitioner will be required to provide the same form:
a. within seven days of the commencement of practice at each subsequent place of practice, and
b. within seven days of each and every notice of any subsequent alteration of these conditions.

6. All costs associated with compliance with the conditions on their registration are at the Practitioner’s own expense.


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