The end of June 2018 signifies the end of a very interesting and exciting period in my three-year appointment as President of the Psychology Council of NSW. Dealing with a host of complaints and difficult, complex decisions with significant ramifications for individual practitioners has highlighted the importance of continued professional training and the application of common sense. Before offering insights gained from my experience, I would like to take the opportunity to sincerely thank members of the Psychology Council for their support, guidance and clarity of advice in ensuring that appropriate and fair decisions were made. Equally importantly, the Psychology Council is indebted to the support and contribution provided by the secretariat in their ‘behind the scenes’ commitment to the Council’s work. In particular, personally and on behalf of the Council, I would like to thank Myra Nikolich, Eleanor Comino, and all the current and past secretariat members for making the Council’s work run so smoothly.
The nature and number of complaints received by the Psychology Council are described in detail in annual reports. I encourage practitioners to read these to understand the potential domains of difficulties that practitioners commonly expose themselves to: boundary transgressions, practising outside areas of competence, poor record keeping, and inappropriate client-practitioner communications. Reflecting on the reasons why practitioners attract complaints, it is clear that there is a bewildering array of factors that shape the practice of both novice and experienced practitioners, and potentially make them vulnerable to notifications including, but not limited to, a lack of insight, failure to understand the importance of effective record keeping, not understanding the limits of social, commercial and sexual boundaries, belief in sufficient training and expertise to offer certain interventions or management of psychological conditions, enmeshment with clients, and lack of familiarity with basic ethical principles.
Additional risk factors commonly associated with complaints are: isolated, solo and/or rural locations of practitioners; the use of social media in promoting practices and communicating with clients (i.e. inadequate attention to separating professional from personal network sites); communication with clients via text messages characterised by over-familiarity, out-of-hours, or with content that can be misinterpreted; out-of-hour home visits without proper safeguards or policies in place; and acting in a manner that brings the profession into disrepute.
The primary role of the Council is to ensure the well-being and safety of the public and the public interest. In dealing with a complaint, subject to its nature, a number of options are available. Where there is high risk, conditions ‘not to practise’ until deficiencies are remedied, can be imposed. Often, however, bringing the practitioner in for counselling is sufficient to highlight the need to address certain weaknesses and improve practices. This might result in a further performance interview and/or assessment where the performance of a practitioner is comprehensively evaluated. Referral to the Impaired Registrants Panel can also occur for those practitioners suffering substance use or mental health issues that compromise effective client management.
It is relevant to mention that, although the Council has legal obligations under the National Law (NSW) in dealing with complaints, the Council is also cognisant of its responsibilities to practitioners to act in a fair and impartial manner. It recognises that some complaints are unfounded or motivated by personal reasons and, as a result, no further action is taken. This does not negate the stresses caused by a practitioner receiving a complaint, and the Council is working towards providing some assistance for these practitioners. The Council also wishes, through counselling, to draw attention to practices that need to be improved with the objective of minimizing the potential for future complaints to be made.
Practitioners have an obligation to practise in a manner that is consistent with and meets the standards expected of a professional psychologist. To do so requires continued professional development, revision of ethical principles and codes of conduct on a regular basis - and consideration that the wellbeing and safety of the public is paramount, as is acting in a manner that does not bring disrepute to the profession. Complacency and taking short-cuts in practice should be interpreted as a ‘red flag’ that increases the likelihood of a complaint. To reflect on your practice and apply common sense is strongly recommended.
I have enjoyed my time on the Council immensely so, having served what has been a most interesting term of office, it is with a tinge of sadness that I now leave the Presidency to the next appointee.