In a recent decision from the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal ('QCAT'), a nurse whom Hall Payne Lawyers represented in disciplinary proceedings, has been allowed to keep her registration despite the QCAT finding that she engaged in professional misconduct by commencing and continuing a romantic relationship with a patient that she was treating.
The nurse and the patient began their affair in about 2015 while the patient was being treated by the nurse at the Prince Charles Hospital. The relationship continued for approximately two years before the patient entered into a relationship with another patient of the hospital.
Ombudsman imposes conditions on the practitioner's registration
Following our client disclosing the relationship to her employer, she lost her job and the Office of the Health Ombudsman ('OHO') imposed conditions on her registration that prevented her from treating male patients.
The conditions effectively meant that she was unable to work as a nurse, which resulted in her losing a second job that she had obtained shortly after leaving the Prince Charles Hospital.
The QCAT disciplinary proceedings
As is all too frequently the case, our client was left in limbo for an extended period (in this case, over two and a half years) while the OHO investigated the matter.
The impact of this was predictably catastrophic for our client. She suffered immense personal distress and hardship, including being made bankrupt before the conditions on her registration were ultimately lifted, and the OHO finally initiated disciplinary proceedings in the Tribunal.
Although the Ombudsman argued that our client's registration should be suspended for at least 12 months, the Tribunal found that no suspension was necessary in order to protect the public.
The Tribunal acknowledged the tumultuous nature of the relationship between the nurse and the former patient, which included allegations that the nurse had suffered domestic violence at the hands of the patient, and accepted her sincere remorse and regret for having engaged in the relationship. The Tribunal noted that our client had educated herself on her professional obligations and the Code of Conduct for Nurses and was in no doubt as to her professional obligations, at the date of the decision.
Importantly, the Tribunal found that while our client's relationship with the patient was undoubtedly unprofessional, it was not predatory and our client had obtained insight into her conduct that would render the suspension or cancellation of registration to be punitive.
The Tribunal concluded that not all instances in which a health practitioner engages in a sexual relationship with a patient will warrant cancellation or suspension of the practitioner's registration.
This is an important decision for health practitioners as it represents a correction to a more realistic and reasonable approach in the way the Tribunal deals with boundary violations by health practitioners; recognising the spectrum of seriousness on which these violations occur, rather than the puritanical and harsh approach which often occurred in the past.
While it is tempting to view nurses (and other health practitioners) as angels due to the work they perform, it is important to recognise that they are human and, like all humans, they are prone to making mistakes. This decision shows that in circumstances where a health practitioner makes a mistake, they will not necessarily be removed from the profession if they can show they have taken sufficient steps to atone for their mistake.
If you're a health professional and you've received a notification (complaint) against your registration, seek advice immediately; either from your Union or a lawyer experienced in professional discipline law.
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