Foundation-backed study helps patients

Professor Ron Paterson, 2009 New Zealand Law Foundation International Research Fellow

Law Foundation-funded research on improving regulation of doctors to better inform and protect the public is making an impact in New Zealand and overseas.

New Zealand Medical Council Chief Executive Philip Pigou credits Professor Ron Paterson’s 2012 book The Good Doctor – What Patients Want for helping the Council ensure patients get the health services they want and need.

“Sometimes we can get caught up in the minutiae of process and the finer points of individual cases. Paterson‘s The Good Doctor provides a timely reminder, and a clear and principled lens through which to look at the role regulation should play in protecting patients from harm,” he said.

The book, along with public and media criticism, prompted the Council to decide in August 2013 to link disciplinary decisions about doctors to its online medical register.

Explaining the decision, Medical Council chair John Adams said that, “to an extent,” he agreed with criticism that the Council had not been as accountable as it could have been.

Formerly Health and Disability Commissioner, Professor Paterson won the Law Foundation’s International Research Fellowship in 2009, enabling him to write the book. His research involved study of medical regulation in New Zealand and in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Australia.

The Medical Council of Australia has used the book, and Professor Paterson as a keynote speaker, to launch a “national conversation” on revalidation of medical professionals in that country. He also presented his research findings at a seminar in London in May 2013 for health professional regulators in the United Kingdom.

His book called for major changes to the ways the medical regulators identify poor practitioners.

“It became clear to me that despite supposed safeguards, some incompetent practitioners were able to continue in practice and harm patients. More worryingly, I observed the apparent unwillingness or inability of regulators to take any decisive action to improve the situation.”

He argued that more lay people should be appointed to medical councils to help overcome the “cosiness” between the regulator and the medical profession. He also advocated better competence checks and screening of at-risk doctors.

“Patient care can be improved by lifting the veils of secrecy and better informing patients, establishing more effective ways of checking doctors’ competence, and ensuring that medical professionals protect the public,” he said.

The Law Foundation award had been a “real bonus” in providing him extended time to research and think about the book.

“The Fellowship is a great opportunity for anybody who is interested in taking some time out to do a substantial piece of research. The Law Foundation has been very interested in and supportive of my work,” he said.

He said flexibility was shown in the award of his Fellowship – his research covered an issue of substantial public importance, although the subject was more akin to social and regulatory policy than pure legal research.

In June 2013 Professor Paterson took five years’ leave from Auckland University to take up an Ombudsman appointment.

The Law Foundation awarded $125,000 to Professor Paterson as winner of the 2009 NZ Law Foundation International Research Fellowship.

The Good Doctor is published by Auckland University Press.

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