Do you know what to do and expect when you receive an HPCSA complaint?

The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) is a statutory body that protects the public, determines standards of professional education and training, and sets and maintains standards of ethical and professional practice.

If you are registered with the HPCSA and a complaint, charge or allegation of unprofessional conduct is laid against you by a patient, a patient’s next-of-kin, a member of the public or other healthcare professional and is formally investigated by the regulatory body, this is known as an HPCSA complaint. The HPCSA has the power to institute disciplinary proceedings against a registered practitioner who is alleged to have transgressed the rules as laid down by the Board.  

In general, there are two types of complaints you may receive, depending on the perceived significance of the transgression by the Registrar’s office and whether or not the matter falls under the jurisdiction of the Council:

  1. a complaint from the Office of the Ombudsman; or
  2. a complaint from the Complaints Handling Unit and Investigations Office.

Broadly speaking, the same procedure applies to either type, but there are differences when it comes to response time frames.

In either case, it is essential that you obtain professional advice before preparing an explanation to any HPCSA-related complaint, since your response can be used as evidence at a later stage, in subsequent disciplinary proceedings or in another forum, such as legal proceedings. It is important to be aware that you may refuse or be advised not to provide an explanation.

You’ve received a formal complaint, what are your next steps?

  1. Check the details of the complainant and/or the patient to ensure that you are the correct recipient of the complaint.
  2. Contact your professional indemnity insurer.
  3. Diarise the due date for the submission of your explanation.
  4. Check if reference is made in the complaint form to any supporting or accompanying documents or affidavits.
  5. Review all information including relevant dates and supporting documentation.
  6. Ensure that you understand the nature of the complaint and identify the concerns that have been raised by the complainant.
  7. Prepare a draft response to the complaint using plain language and avoiding jargon. It is helpful to set out an account of what took place, even if this is background information.
  8. If relevant medical records are no longer with the practice, obtain copies thereof. If you will be making reference to any other individual whose comments are required, obtain those wherever possible.
  9. Be aware of patient confidentiality as not all complaints are made by the patient personally.
  10. Establish all the facts in order to provide a full response to the complaint. Avoid blaming or judging others, be understanding, offer condolences if these are due and apologise if an error has been made.

How does the HPCSA resolve the complaint?

The letter of complaint together with your explanation, if one is submitted, will be referred to the relevant HPCSA Professional Board for consideration.   

Where the conduct is deemed at worst to be a minor transgression in the opinion of the Registrar or Committee of Preliminary Inquiry, the matter will be mediated, without prejudice, by the Ombudsman, with the aim of resolving it.   

If the decision is made that there are relevant grounds for complaint that require further investigation, a Professional Conduct Committee will hold a professional conduct inquiry where oral evidence will be presented. This often includes statements made by independent, expert witnesses.

Should the professional conduct inquiry find you guilty of misconduct, the committee’s decision is final, unless either party lodges an appeal. You may then be subject to the following penalties:

  1. A caution or a reprimand or both
  2. A fine
  3. Suspension for a specified period from practising your profession
  4. Removal of your name from the relevant register
  5. A compulsory period of professional service
  6. Payment of the costs of the proceedings

At EthiQal, we are committed to protecting our doctors and keeping them in practice. Our in-house team of experienced medical and legal professionals will assess your situation and provide you with appropriate assistance and support. We also understand the devastating impact that receiving a summons or adverse patient outcome can cause and we can provide counselling by qualified experts.

For more information about HPCSA complaints or our medico-legal services, please contact EthiQal today on 011 686 4200.

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