Allegations that a psychologist had an inappropriate relationship with a patient whilst continuing treatment

The Civil and Administrative Tribunal of New South Wales recently dealt with a complaint brought by the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) in relation to allegations that a psychologist had an inappropriate relationship with a patient whilst continuing to treat the patient. The patient was born biologically female but had transitioned to a male identity 13 years before seeking treatment from the practitioner. In November 2013 a sexual relationship commenced between the psychologist and the patient. Further, in December 2013 the practitioner funded a series of surgeries for the patient to transition back to female. The practitioner and patient commenced living together in January 2014 but in April 2014 the practitioner left the shared residence and ended the relationship with the patient. Two days later the practitioner phoned a colleague in a distressed state in which he admitted the relationship and showed signs of delusional thinking. The practitioner’s colleague made the required mandatory notification to AHPRA.

In May 2014 the practitioner consented to a condition being placed on his registration that he not practice psychology until such condition was removed or reviewed by the Psychology Council. In July 2014 an apprehended violence order was taken out on the practitioner’s behalf against the patient.

The HCCC brought two complaints of unprofessional conduct and professional misconduct against the practitioner. At the time of the hearing the practitioner conceded both complaints but contested a number of particulars upon which they rested. Whilst an application was made to dispense with the oral hearing the Tribunal found that the very serious nature of misconduct alleged and the dispute in relation to some events, meant that an inquiry was required and that it was not possible to determine these matters on the papers. The patient did not give evidence and therefore there was no opportunity to test his evidence and accordingly very little weight was placed upon factual assertions in his written statement in the absence of other evidence to corroborate them. The Tribunal ultimately found that all particulars with the exception of one were made out to the required standard. It noted that the matters established were very serious and covered a number of major failures of professional judgement including an inappropriate sexual relationship with a very vulnerable patient.

The Tribunal was satisfied that the conduct amounted to professional misconduct and that de-registration of the practitioner was the only appropriate protective order. Furthermore, the Tribunal concluded that the period of de-registration should be substantial in order to protect the public and because the practitioner failed to appreciate the gravity of the misconduct. It was found that the practitioner had a profound and continuing lack of insight in relation to his professional conduct. The orders included an order that the practitioner be prohibited from applying for registration for the period of five years.

This orders made highlight the continuing concern of the HCCC and the Tribunal towards instances of clinician and patient relationships.

Post by Karen Kumar and Cameron Leaver 

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