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ABC News
ABC News
Emily Baker, Amy Donaldson and Madeleine King

Call for urgent review into system that allows doctors sanctioned for sexual misconduct to keep practising

The federal health minister will push for a "rapid review" after Four Corners shared details of an investigation into sexual misconduct by registered health professionals.

A six-month investigation by Four Corners will reveal Australia's system of health regulation is allowing doctors who have groped, dated and molested their patients to continue practising.

Hundreds of medical practitioners have been sanctioned by tribunals for sexual misconduct involving patients since 2010 — and many are still registered to work.

All doctors must be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA), which also investigates complaints in most jurisdictions on behalf of professional boards. AHPRA can only recommend action to the 15 boards.

No single minister is responsible for AHPRA — instead, Federal Health Minister Mark Butler and his state and territory counterparts must agree on changes to the legislation governing the agency.

After being contacted by Four Corners ahead of next week's program, Mr Butler described sexual misconduct as "abhorrent".

"AHPRA and the National Boards operate independently under a regulatory and legislative framework that is the responsibility of all states and territories as well as the Commonwealth," Mr Butler said in a statement.

"But if that framework is falling short of protecting patient safety, then Australians rightly expect governments at all levels to work to strengthen it.

"I am writing to the chair of the Health Ministers Meeting to put this issue on the agenda at our next meeting, including a rapid review of the response by jurisdictions to previous reviews."

Previous reviews include senate inquiries and a review into the use of mandatory chaperones for health professionals. The latter inquiry was commissioned after a neurologist accused of sexual assault was allowed to keep working under supervision, and went on to allegedly offend again.

In an exclusive interview, AHPRA chief executive Martin Fletcher has told Four Corners he supports legislative change that would give patients a greater say in decision-making.

"That's probably ultimately something that ministers would need to consider in terms of amending the law that we operate under," he said.

The Four Corners program "Do No Harm" reveals doctors removed from practice can apply to return through their governing board in a process kept secret in every state and territory except NSW.

Mr Fletcher also said he is supportive of greater transparency in that process.

"Ultimately, some of these are changes that would probably require changes to our national law and that would be a matter for health ministers around Australia," Mr Fletcher said.

Mr Butler said Australians should expect their health practitioners to uphold the highest standards.

"There is no doubt that the vast majority of the 850,000 registered health practitioners in Australia deserve that trust," Mr Butler said.

"But where practitioners abuse it, regulators must step in."

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