Following the recent guilty finding into allegations of Unsatisfactory Conduct by neurosurgeon Dr Charlie Teo, the concept of Professional Misconduct in Australia and its consequences and implications according to Commonwealth Law have been in the headlines.

In this blog post, New South Lawyers will explore the legal  definition of Professional Misconduct according to Australian law and shed light on its consequences for professionals.

Dr Charlie Teo and Professional Misconduct in Australia  

A recent news article on reported that the renowned neurosurgeon, Dr Charlie Teo had been found guilty of Professional Misconduct by the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission. (HCCC).

According to the article, the allegations against Dr Teo included:1. misleading patients and their families about the potential benefits and risks of surgical procedures, and2. charging exorbitant fees.

It was found that Dr Teo's conduct in relation to the above allegations constituted Professional Misconduct in the medical profession, in that breached the standards and ethical guidelines expected of a medical professional.

What is Professional Misconduct?

Misconduct is defined in the general sense as being ‘unlawful behaviour or conduct that is not proper’. Misconduct of any kind is a significant concern in any field of profession, as it undermines public trust and integrity within a profession.

Professional Misconduct, whilst being a form of misconduct, specifically refers to the improper or unethical behaviour exhibited by professionals which violates the established standards and codes of conduct governing their respective occupations.

‘Unsatisfactory Professional Conduct’ of a registered health practitioner in NSW is defined in Section 139B of the Act and includes, "conduct that demonstrates the knowledge, skill or judgment possessed, or care exercised, by the practitioner in the practice of the practitioner's profession is significantly below the standard reasonably expected of a practitioner of an equivalent level of training or experience”.

'Professional Misconduct' in relation to a registered health practitioner (such as in Dr Teo’s case) within NSW is defined in Section 139E of the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law 2009 (NSW)(the Act) as being:(a) unsatisfactory professional conduct of a sufficiently serious nature to justify suspension or cancellation of the practitioner’s registration; or(b) more than one instance of unsatisfactory conduct that, when the instances are considered together, amount to conduct of a sufficiently serious nature to justify suspension or cancellation of the practitioner’s registration

Professional Misconduct goes beyond mere errors in judgment or professional negligence, as it encompasses intentional or wilful acts that breach the trust and duty owed to clients, colleagues, or the general public.

In Australia, Professional Misconduct can fall under various areas of law, depending upon the profession and jurisdiction involved. However, regardless, Professional Misconduct can hold serious legal implications.  By understanding the legal implications and consequences associated with professional misconduct, individuals can strive to maintain the highest standards of professionalism and ethical behaviour within practice to ensure the trust of their clients, colleagues, and the public. 

Legal implications of Professional Misconduct in Australia

Professional Misconduct carries significant legal implications for for professional practitioners within Australia. Regulatory bodies, specific to each profession, are responsible for investigating and taking appropriate disciplinary actions when misconduct is proven.

Regulatory bodies, specific to each profession, are responsible for investigating and taking appropriate disciplinary actions when misconduct is proven. In Australia, the regulation and disciplinary actions related to Professional Misconduct vary across different professions. Regulatory bodies, specific to each profession, are responsible for investigating and taking appropriate disciplinary actions when misconduct is proven.

For example, the legal profession is governed by state and territory-based regulatory bodies, such as Law Societies or Bar Associations, in each state and territory within Australia. Similarly, other professions like those in the fields of engineering, accounting, and psychology have their own regulatory bodies overseeing professional conduct. A statutory body that may deal with such complaints externally is the New South Wales Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT).

Elements of Professional Misconduct

While the specifics may vary depending upon the profession, certain elements are commonly associated with professional misconduct. The elements that are commonly associated with professional misconduct include:

Firstly, breach of professional duty: Professionals are expected to adhere to a certain standard of care, ethics, and professionalism in their respective fields. Any deliberate or reckless violation of these duties may constitute professional misconduct.

Secondly, serious misconduct: Professional Misconduct typically involves conduct that is considered serious, flagrant, or recurring. Acts that bring disrepute to the profession, cause harm to clients or the public, or breach established standards can be categorised as serious misconduct.

Thirdly, code of conduct violations: Professions often have codes of conduct or ethical guidelines that outline expected behaviour. Breaching these codes may lead to allegations of Professional Misconduct.

Finally, lack of integrity or dishonesty: Professionals are expected to maintain a high level of integrity and honesty in their dealings. Any act involving dishonesty, fraud, or misrepresentation can be grounds for professional misconduct.

Consequence of Professional Misconduct

When a professional is found guilty of Misconduct, - as was Dr Teo of whom was accused of having a "substantially experimental" attitude while operating on two patients at a Sydney hospital, - the regulatory bodies have the authority to impose a range of disciplinary actions.

These actions are designed to protect the public interest and maintain the integrity of the profession and can result in the following:

Firstly, a reprimand or warning being given. In less severe cases, a regulatory body may issue a formal reprimand or warning to the practitioner, highlighting the misconduct and emphasising the need for improved behaviour.

Secondly, the imposition of conditions or restrictions: Regulatory bodies can impose specific conditions or restrictions on a practitioner's practice. These may include supervision requirements, educational programs, or limitations on the scope of practice.

Thirdly, suspension: A practitioner may be suspended from practicing in their profession for a defined period. During the suspension, the individual a practitioner is prohibited from offering services or engaging in professional activities.

Fourthly, cancellation or revocation of a practitioner’s license or registration: In serious cases of Professional Misconduct, the regulatory body may cancel or revoke a practitioner's license or registration, effectively barring them from practicing within their profession.

Finally, professional rehabilitation being imposed upon a practitioner: In some instances, practitioners may be required to undergo professional rehabilitation programs to address the underlying issues that led to the misconduct. This aims to ensure the practitioner’s eventual return to ethical practice. 

What do the findings of Professional Misconduct mean for Charlie Teo?

The recent case involving Dr Charlie Teo, that came about as a result of an investigation conducted by the HCCC, highlights the importance of upholding professional integrity within a profession and the serious repercussions that can follow if Professional Misconduct is proven.

As it currently stands, Dr Teo will need written support from another medical specialist before performing certain medical procedures again within Australia. .The HCCC decision against Dr Teo, reinforces the existing ban by the NSW Medical Council prohibiting Dr Teo from operating within Australia without written approval, of which was originally applied against Dr Teo in August 2021.

Given that no neurosurgeon in Australia or New Zealand has written a letter of support for Dr Teo to approve him to operate in recent years, he has moved most of his work overseas.

New South Lawyers’ communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. To that end, people should not rely on this communication as legal advice. Accordingly, they should seek formal legal advice for matters of interest arising from this communication.

To find out more, chat with a member of the New South Lawyers Team today.