6 November 2023

Canberra doctor banned for 12 months over offensive email to Indigenous eye surgeon

| Lizzie Waymouth

Medical Board of Australia chair Dr Anne Tonkin said ACAT’s decision is a “clear message that racist and culturally unsafe practice and behaviour is unlawful and carries substantive penalties”. Photo: Supplied.

A Canberra doctor has been banned from practising for 12 months after sending an offensive email to an Indigenous doctor he accused of being a “fake Aboriginal”.

The ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal (ACAT) found that his behaviour constituted professional misconduct and disqualified him from applying for re-registration for a year.

The Medical Board of Australia called the verdict a “landmark outcome” as it follows a strengthening of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) national law introduced last year, which means that tribunals and health regulatory decision-makers must take into account racist and culturally unsafe practices when deciding matters of professional misconduct.

The email was sent to Associate Professor Kris Rallah-Baker, Australia’s first and only Aboriginal ophthalmologist. Dr Rallah-Baker, a Yuggera, Warangoo and Wiradjuri man, made the unusual request that his name be included in the published findings.

“It was important for me that this outcome wasn’t faceless, for people to see they won’t be brought down if they complain about racism, and if they need to reach out, they can,” he said.

“Racism in the healthcare system contributes to patient harm and premature death.”

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The banned doctor, whose name was suppressed by ACAT, emailed Dr Rallah-Baker’s ophthalmology practice, Sunshine Coast Ophthalmologists, on 19 July 2022.

According to the agreed statement of facts, he claimed in the email that Dr Rallah-Baker’s Indigenous heritage was “like a watered-down bottle of Grange. Not the real thing”.

He also criticised the Closing the Gap (CTG) Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme co-payment program.

“To obtain a PBS subsidy for simple modified-release paracetamol a patient MUST be aboriginal. This is not means tested. So rich dudes like you … could get your Panadol Osteo for absolutely NO CHARGE under the CTG legislation, but my struggling old age pensioners with their osteoarthritis have to buy it at full cost,” he wrote.

The comments had an “immediate, profound emotional toll” on Dr Rallah-Baker.

optometrist working

Dr Kris Rallah-Baker examines Moses Silver’s eyesight at Sunrise Health Service Aboriginal Corporation. Photo: Michael Amendolia.

Over the following month, AHPRA investigators contacted the banned doctor on several occasions via telephone and email. In these conversations, the doctor insulted Dr Rallah-Baker and the medical regulator.

“You can tell the fake Aboriginal that if he does not withdraw his complaint … I will not be donating my AHPRA annual ripoff fee come the end of September,” he said in one email.

In a phone call with an investigator, he accused Dr Rallah-Baker of “riding the Aboriginal bandwagon” and called the AHPRA board a “pack of f–kwits”.

Senior ACAT members said, “The respondent displayed discriminatory and offensive behaviour, which had a deleterious emotional effect on Dr Rallah-Baker”.

“The respondent engaged in further misconduct … in his interaction with [AHPRA] between 19 July and 30 August 2022, by making disrespectful, offensive and culturally insensitive comments about Dr Rallah-Baker, whom the respondent did not know and had never met.”

The tribunal noted that the banned doctor had a history of “interpersonal conflict with others, including patients, on a number of occasions”. A psychiatrist’s report found that he had a “personality with cognitive rigidity and a difficulty in understanding others’ emotional responses to his actions”.

Although the doctor had apologised for his behaviour and issued an apology to Dr Rallah-Baker, ACAT was unsatisfied that he was genuinely remorseful.

“Apart from the two apologies mentioned above, which were issued through his lawyers, no evidence has been presented to the Tribunal by the respondent supporting that he has taken any steps to gain insight into his conduct or expressing any remorse or contrition for his actions,” ACAT members said.

“This leads us to the view that, if he were to return to medical practice, there is a risk that the respondent may re-offend if faced with similar circumstances.”

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Medical Board of Australia chair Dr Anne Tonkin said ACAT’s decision is a “clear message that racist and culturally unsafe practice and behaviour is unlawful and carries substantive penalties, including disqualification from registration”.

“We acknowledge the impact this has had on Associate Professor Kris Rallah-Baker and his family over the past two years and hope this outcome can help in their healing.”

Ahpra CEO Martin Fletcher said: “The tribunal’s finding further highlights that racist and discriminatory behaviours will not be tolerated in Australia’s health system.”

“Cultural safety is clinical safety, and required by national law.

“Registered health practitioners are also expected to take steps to educate themselves on cultural safety.”

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