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Fake health practitioners to face jail time under tough new penalties

Bogus doctors and health practitioners caught deceiving patients face jail time for lying about their qualifications under a suite of tough penalties being rolled out as part of a national crackdown on impostors.

While a number of criminal offences already exist under the National Practitioner Regulation National Law Act for impersonating a registered health practitioner, until now those offences have not included jail terms.

Under sweeping amendments to the national law, harsh new punishments will come into effect on Monday, meaning those caught masquerading as health professionals face up to three years in prison for each offence.

“It is a very gross violation of a patient’s trust, it furiously threatens public safety and they deserve to feel the full force of the law,” Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency chief executive Martin Fletcher said.

Individual fraudsters will also be slapped with hefty fines, as penalties soar from $30,000 to $60,000 per offence, while fines for corporate entities caught deceiving patients will be doubled from $60,000 to $120,000.

The overhaul in the way the criminal justice system deals with dodgy health practitioners was triggered by a number of high-profile and disturbing cases across Australia.

In many instances, fraudsters masquerading as doctors and health professionals received prison sentences. But they were jailed on charges such as obtaining a financial advantage by deception, sexual assault, fraud or forgery rather than lying about their qualifications.

Among them was Italian-born Raffaele di Paolo, 61, who posed as a fake gynaecologist, obstetrician and Melbourne fertility specialist, and peddled false hope to Victorians about their chances of starting a family.

He was convicted on dozens of charges, including obtaining property by deception, sexual penetration by fraud and common assault and was jailed last year for almost a decade.

Di Paolo performed a range of treatments on 30 victims, including men, from removing semen from testicles with a needle to injecting unknown substances into women’s stomachs.

Other impostors escaped with just a fine.

In an extreme case of deception that sent shockwaves through the medical industry, Indian national Shyam Acharya masqueraded as a doctor in NSW hospitals for more than a decade after stealing a qualified doctor’s identity.

From 2003 to 2014, Acharya worked in the NSW public health system treating patients under the name Sarang Chitale.

Acharya had lived with the real Dr Chitale in India between 1999 and 2000 and during that time, he stole Dr Chitale’s identity documents and medical qualifications and later used them to gain Australian citizenship and medical registration.

NSW magistrate Jennifer Atkinson found Acharya’s conduct was in the “worst category” and imposed the maximum penalty available for fraudulently claiming to be a doctor – a $30,000 fine.

Acharya’s sentence prompted widespread calls for harsher penalties, including jail terms, for those found guilty of faking health credentials.

Unlicensed backyard dentist, Muhammet Velipasaoglu, was also caught after treating hundreds of dental patients from a Melbourne garage until 2015.

The Turkish immigrant avoided a jail sentence after pleading guilty to a spate of charges including carrying out restricted dental acts. One woman who had undergone nine consecutive root canals in Velipasaoglu’s garage clinic had suffered greatly following the procedures and was unable to sleep or eat after the surgery.

A fake psychiatrist, bogus paramedic and fraudulent medical practitioner all came before Queensland courts last year.

In a landmark case, fake nurse Nicholas Crawford was ordered to pay more than $40,000 for falsely claiming to be a registered nurse while he worked in intensive care and emergency departments in the Northern Territory.

Other prosecutions have included people pretending to be physiotherapists, psychologists and pharmacists. More than 1300 people have been reported to AHPRA since 2014, resulting in 50 prosecutions.

Mr Fletcher said the health regulator’s beefed-up regulatory powers included the establishment of a criminal offence unit that would work alongside police and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

“All health ministers recognise that penalties need to be tougher for serious cases,” he said. “When someone pretends to be a registered health practitioner, they pose a significant risk to the public.”

The COAG health council, which comprises health ministers from state, territory and federal governments, agreed to double penalties for individuals and introduce maximum three-year prison terms in 2017, saying current penalties were manifestly inadequate.

The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s federal secretary Annie Butler said the changes were critical to protecting registered nurses and patient safety.

“The public places a great amount of trust in nurses and the work they do,” she said.

“Anyone who falsely claims to be a nurse betrays this trust and must face the consequences.”

Under the national law, anyone who calls themselves any of the “protected titles”, such as chiropractor, medical practitioner, nurse, dentist, or psychologist, must be registered by AHPRA.

Patients can check the online register of practitioners to see if they are seeing a registered practitioner.

To contact AHPRA call 1300 419 495.

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Source The Age

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