Psychologists in Australia fall in the healthcare industry field and their activity is governed by very strict regulations, starting with background checks when applying for registration. Their conduct is permanently assessed and their license to practice can be suspended if there are criminal charges brought against them or if they are subjected to a professional conduct investigation.
When is a background check required
According to the public safety measures introduced in 2010 under the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme (NRAS), all health care practitioners, including psychologists must undergo a background check when they first apply for registration, but it doesn’t end there. A police check can be required at any time during the period their registration is valid and the same procedure applies when their registration is up for renewal.
At the same time, psychologists must inform the governing body of their profession, the Psychology Board of Australia (PsyBA), if and when they are charged with an offence that can result in a jail sentence.
Incidence of criminal offences in the health care sector
Before the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme was introduced, there was no clear picture of how widespread are criminal offences among health care professionals.
During the first years the NRAS was in place, there were 52,445 background checks performed on people applying for a job or a license in health care. As it turned out, almost 3,000 of those people, or 6% of the applicants, had a criminal record. However, in most cases the criminal records referred to minor offences that did not impact the applicants’ chances of being registered in their field. Indeed, only 449 of the criminal records discovered were deemed serious enough to affect the registration process.
As far as psychologists are concerned, there were only 40 people with a record, and only in one case the application was denied. Two other individuals were granted conditional registration with certain limitations imposed.
If you look at the numbers, they are not that high, but what you have to keep in mind is that by the very nature of their profession, psychologists routinely interact with very vulnerable people and the damage done to them can be very serious.
Background screening options
There are a number of options available to psychologists to obtain accredited criminal history checks in Australia. They can head down to the local police station to complete the process manually (typically takes two or more weeks) or they can obtain the certificate online from a provider like Australian National Character Check Australia.
Another measure aimed at protecting vulnerable patients refers to the obligation of all registered psychologists to report to the PsyBA any concerns they might have regarding the conduct of another member of their profession.
Thus, a psychologist who has reason to believe a colleague might be guilty of professional misconduct must report it to the PsyBA, which oversees this sort of investigation.
It’s not strictly about misconduct. If a psychologist discovers a fellow practitioner has a health problem that might impair his or her judgment, the PsyBA must be notified.
Of the 390 notifications concerning psychologists received between July 2010 and June 2011, the vast majority, 87%, involved suspicions of misconduct. Another 9% of the notifications referred to health issues, while 4% claimed the concerned psychologist lacks the knowledge to deal with certain cases.
What can a psychologist do when he or she is under investigation
Whether they were reported by a patient, a patient’s family or by one of their own, psychologists in Australia are entitled to a fair investigation.
The first thing to do is to demand detailed information about the allegations made against them, like who formulated the complaint and when the offence was supposedly committed.
Armed with such information, a psychologist needs to demand legal counsel under his or her professional insurance policy.
If the issue is cleared after an internal investigation of the PsyBA the practitioner concerned can go back to his work, but, should the findings confirm the accusation, he might lose his license and possibly face a criminal investigation.