health

What to do when you feel your doctor is incompetent.

Doctors are consistently named among the most-trusted occupations, coming in second place in the 2015 Australian ranking, and many of us are lucky to have found one who we feel comfortable and safe with.

However, not everyone is so fortunate. Last week, a 19-year-old shared her account of being belittled during her first consultation with a gynaecologist.

“When I told him I was 14 when I was diagnosed, he gave me this look and said, “What does a 14-year-old have to be depressed about?” the Redditor, momdadimrae, recalled in a post that’s since received more than 800 comments.

“He kept berating me, asking me if it was school or home that made me sad and seek attention, and then told me that depression is over-diagnosed in this country.”

The doctor also told the woman that depression “wasn’t a thing” in his own country, and made snide comments about her weight. He also yelled a nurse out of the room.

In a similar vein, Mamamia published an article last year by a writer who was told her vagina smelled “awful” during an appointment. The comments posted by our readers proved she wasn’t alone in being treated in an insulting or dismissive way by a doctor.

Though this kind of behaviour is awful and degrading, it’s thankfully not a common occurrence.

“Doctors as a whole, I think, strive to provide the best care for their patients. But doctors aren’t infallible and it does give rise to situations where, for one reason or another, the quality of care they provide can be less than optimum,” explains Dr Piraveen Pirakalathanan, Healthand‘s Principal Medical Officer.

As a patient, you have the right to dignity and privacy; to be given adequate information to make decisions about your treatment; to be treated professionally and competently; and to seek a second or third opinion.

If you are ever treated in an unprofessional or inappropriate way by a medical professional, you have every right to take action. “It’s important for patients to speak up, because it can affect their own health, and in some cases it can help other patients avoid having to go through a similar situation,” Dr Pirakalathanan says.

Watch: 5 things you didn’t know about PCOS. (Post continues after video.)

What you can do

There are a number of avenues available for addressing an incident. While there’s no one-size-fits-all process, Dr Pirakalathanan says the first step you take depends on the severity of the incident or behaviour, and should ultimately be dictated by you looking after your own safety.

However, here’s a general guide to the options available:

1. Discuss the incident the with the health professional involved

Dr Pirakalathanan says speaking directly to the doctor you’re unhappy with is the best route to take if it’s a minor issue, and if your main objective is to receive an apology.

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“However, if a patient is going to follow this particular step, I would encourage them to go into the meeting with the doctor with someone they know and trust, just for their own protection and safety,” he adds. (Post continues after gallery.)

2. Raise it with the practice or hospital where they work

“There are people within each of these organisations who are responsible for handling unprofessional or incompetent behaviour by staff … it’s their duty to take a complaint seriously and act on it,” Dr Pirakalathanan explains.

In medical practices the relevant person is usually the practice manager or owner, while in the hospital it’s the chief medical officer or CEO. A complaint can be submitted in writing or over the phone and can be done anonymously if you prefer.

3. Speak to another doctor you trust

If there’s another doctor who you have a good relationship with, talking to them about what’s happened is another potential avenue. Dr Pirakalathanan says doctors have a right report their colleagues and are obliged to do so if they feel they’re acting in an unprofessional manner or putting patients at harm due to inappropriate behaviour.

Another trusted doctor can help you deal with the issue.

4. Report the doctor to the Health Ombudsman

"Each state has a Health Ombudson, whose job it is to handle and dissolve issues arising from various areas of the healthcare sector, including misconduct or inappropriate professional behaviour by doctors," Dr Pirakalathanan says.

You can visit the National Health Practitioner Ombudsman website here, and complaints can be made over the phone or in writing.

Patients in VIC, TAS, SA, WA and NT can also contact the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) for advice or to lodge an online notification (i.e. complaint) form. The Board will decide whether regulatory action is needed — with the most serious matters being referred to panels and tribunals for a hearing — and will refer you to the relevant agency if they're not the right body to deal with your situation.

For residents of NSW and QLD, complaints should be made to the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) and Office of the Health Ombudsman (OHO) respectively.

5. Consider legal action

This step is only necessary where a patient is seeking monetary compensation if they perceive there have been damages or injuries due to misconduct. Dr Pirakalathanan advises that before seeking legal action, talk to a trusted lawyer in depth, as the process can be difficult, costly and time-consuming.

What's expected of doctors?

The Medical Board of Australia, which deals with the registration and standards of medical practitioners in Australia, developed a Code of Conduct for all doctors registered in this country. You can download and read it here.

As the MBA website states, the Code "sets out the principles that characterise good medical practice and makes explicit the standards of ethical and professional conduct expected of doctors by their professional peers and the community." This includes the way they communicate and interact with patients, make judgements, and keep their skills and knowledge up-to-date.

The code applies to any professional setting, whether that be a face-to-face appointment or one conducted via a tech device.

You can also check whether your health professional is registered on the AHPRA website.

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to report a doctor? 

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