‘Doctors might be intimidated’: GP blasts NSW complaints body

Jolyon Attwooll

14/03/2022 5:25:41 PM

A single anonymous complaint was enough for one Taree GP to receive a warning about ‘maintaining constructive communication’ in public.

Dr Simon Holliday.
Dr Simon Holliday says a strong complaints commission is essential but believes the regulator should be open to critique.

Taree GP Dr Simon Holliday believes processes to protect public health and safety are open to abuse, after receiving a complaints commission letter that advised him to adjust how he makes public comments.
The correspondence from the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) concerned an anonymous complaint about an interview with Dr Holliday in the Manning River Times newspaper last August.
In that article, he talked about older patients insisting on the Pfizer vaccine, and the dangers of misinformation.
He told the reporter that half a dozen patients aged over 60 had been ‘bullying their way in’ to request Pfizer despite the recommended vaccine for that age group being AstraZeneca, and that they ‘wouldn’t take no for answer’.
He also warned that people getting misinformation ‘from Facebook …[and] some of the extremists in the Liberal/National parties’ were ‘putting themselves in a terrible position’. 
‘People have got to get their feet on the ground, get their head out of the internet, and stop listening to these people, who are evangelical, talking nonsense with conviction,’ he said.
The article’s final words also quoted Dr Holliday saying: ‘You can’t vaccinate against stupidity.’
In the complaint submitted to the HCCC, the anonymous complainant conflated Dr Holliday’s remarks and accused him of making ‘unprofessional and divisive’ comments about Liberals over 60.
‘I ask you to please ask Mr Simon [sic] to have empathy, less judgement and a little more compassion,’ the complaint states.
In correspondence subsequently sent to Dr Holliday, the HCCC assessment again conflated the separate remarks without clarification. And while the HCCC acknowledged Dr Holliday’s remarks ‘appear to be supportive’ of NSW Health directives, it advised him to modify the way he speaks to the media.
‘I understand from the complaint that the complainant has raised concerns about you making judgemental and unprofessional comments about Liberals over 60s [sic] in the local newspaper,’ the letter from an HCCC complaint assessment officer states.
‘We considered the complainant’s concerns about how some people in the community may feel regarding the comments made.
‘In light of the above considerations, we will therefore be making comments to you to be mindful about maintaining constructive and professional communication when making public comments.’
The HCCC officer told Dr Holliday the observations were agreed in a joint meeting between the commission and the Medical Council of NSW ‘in order for you to reflect on and improve your practice’.
Dr Holliday had previously been unaware of any complaint made against him before receiving the letter in October. He has contested the comments and fears the HCCC system – which states its purpose as ‘to protect public health and safety’ – is vulnerable to manipulation.
‘I think it’s weaponising the compliance process to intimidate doctors and I don’t think our regulators should be part of that,’ he told newsGP.
Moreover, he points to errors in the complaint that were not addressed in the HCCC assessment. As well as the conflating of remarks, his name was misspelled and an out-of-date surgery address used.
The complainant also said they had received a health service from Dr Holliday and attempted to resolve the complaint directly with him prior to contacting the HCCC. The Taree GP contests both assertions.
‘Your suggestion that practitioners should be “constructive” surely does not mean eternally positivist,’ he wrote in a subsequent response to the HCCC.
‘It would be reckless to ignore the reality of the many forces undermining public health campaigns and health services.’
His response also highlighted the context surrounding his remarks, made when former Liberal MP Craig Kelly and Nationals MP George Christensen were advocating Ivermectin and supporting anti-vaxxers.
Both MPs have been sanctioned by Facebook, with Mr Kelly having his profile page removed altogether.
Dr Holliday says he never received a reply.

He also took the matter up with his local MP, Stephen Bromhead, who sent his concerns to the NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard. Minister Hazzard’s response mostly addressed queries over the anonymity of the complaint, while also noting the commission is an independent statutory body that is not subject to ministerial direction.
Dr Holliday remains deeply unsatisfied with the process.
He says a strong complaints commission is essential ‘to identify problematic doctors or try to help people do better practice’. However, he believes the regulator should be open to critique, and deserves it in this case.
‘For my sake, I don’t really care,’ he said. ‘They can jump in the lake. But I do care because other doctors might be intimidated by this.’
In response to newsGP queries about its handling of the complaint, the HCCC said it would not go into specific details due to ‘confidentiality and non-disclosure obligations and laws’.
A spokesperson said the commission undertakes ‘comprehensive risk-based triaging of complaints’.
‘In this case the triage did not identify that the complaint should be set aside on the basis that it was vexatious,’ they stated.
‘This complaint was ultimately discontinued after consideration of all of the facts.’
The correspondence in full
Dr Holliday’s comments in full, as reported by the Manning Times on 6 August, 2021:
[Dr Holliday] sounds exhausted, and has admitted in the not-too-long-ago past that COVID and the vaccination rollout are taking a toll on the mental health of medical professionals and their staff.
One of the reasons for that is the way they are being treated by some members of the public, often aggressively.
‘We did 180 Pfizers on Saturday [July 31] and we had half a dozen over 60s bullying their way in, wouldn’t take no for [an] answer. Their backsides weren’t going to move off the chair,’ Dr Holliday said.
The other reason is the never-ending fight to counteract the insidious misinformation about COVID and vaccinations that just won’t go away.
‘People who have been getting their information from Sky News and some of the extremists in the Liberal/National parties, and getting their information from Facebook, unfortunately they’re putting themselves in a terrible position.
‘We’re doing all we can to help those people get to a safe position but people have got to get their feet on the ground, get their head out of the internet, and stop listening to these people, who are evangelical, talking nonsense with conviction.
‘There are a lot of people who are foolish, who believe bizarre things. We can’t let those people indirectly cause the death and illness in our community.
‘Unfortunately, you can’t vaccinate against foolishness,’ Dr Holliday said.
The complaint (unedited)
Mr Simon has made ridiculous, judgmental and unprofessional comments to the local newspaper. He is a doctor and his comments about liberals over 60s is unprofessional and divisive. We live in a democracy not a dictatorship so regardless of doctor Hallidays medical profession he is not allowed to dictate and police the communities political choices. He lacks empathy for those over 60s openly judges people as fools. I ask you to please ask Mr Simon to have empathy, less judgement and a little more compassion. All his comments can be found in the Manning Time.
The HCCC response
Dear Dr Holliday,
Our decision concerning the complaint from an Unknown Complainant
The Health Care Complaints Commission has assessed the complaint from an Unknown Complainant.
I understand from the complaint that the Complainant has raised concerns about you making judgemental and unprofessional comments about liberals over 60s in the local newspaper, Manning Times.
On review of all of the information, we were satisfied that the views expressed appear to be supportive of the NSW Health directive. However, we considered the Complainant’s concerns about how some people in the Community may feel regarding the comments made.
In light of the above considerations, we will therefore be making comments to you, to be mindful about maintaining constructive and professional communication when making public comments.
The Commission made these comments in order for you to reflect on and improve your practice.
I have outlined below all of the steps taken by the Commission to assess the complaint.
Our assessment
The purpose of assessment is to consider information relevant to the complaint and to decide the most appropriate way to deal with the concerns raised in accordance with the Health Care Complaints Act 1993.
The Commission did not request a response from you as we considered we had sufficient information to assess the complaint. A copy of the complaint is enclosed for your review.
Please note at a consultation meeting held with the Medical Council of NSW, the Commission and Council discussed the details of this complaint. All of the information gathered during the assessment was reviewed and both the Commission and Council agreed it was appropriate for the Commission to make comments to you.
Review of decision
The Complaint is entitled to request a review of this decision within 28 days of this letter. We will notify you if our decision changes as a result of a review.
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Dr Stu Perry   14/03/2022 7:20:20 PM

Wow - this an outrageous abuse of the power given to the HCCC.
Reprimanding a GP via an anonymous, unverified complaint is bull shit. Worse still is the thought it was in conjunction with the Medical Council of NSW! The burden of proof should be of a criminal standard - beyond reasonable doubt with the ability to contest facts regardt the case.
I stand with you Dr Simon Holliday👊

Dr Angela Nimmo   15/03/2022 7:38:34 AM

I am in complete agreement with Dr Holliday
It is not the role of the HCCC to intervene in a press release which has offended a member of the public. Furthermore I do not believe that anonymous complaints or indeed any anonymous correspondence warrants any kind of response. If a person is unwilling to identify themselves then they are not worth the time of day.

Dr Ian Raymond Norman Relf   15/03/2022 8:29:25 AM

The comment from NSW Department was correct. GP's should keep their political comments to themselves- GPs should answer the medical question and keep it factual. Please note Craig Kelly (who is misguided and medically uninformed) is not a member of the Liberal Party. He was thrown out for this reason.

Dr Julie Anne Copeman   15/03/2022 10:11:22 AM

Sounds like he was frazzled by the overload of work related to Covid vaccination which we’ve simply been expected to absorb. You are not allowed to tell it like it is nowadays.
Breathtaking and very worrying that they had the presumption to pass judgement without even the courtesy of his participation in the process.

Dr Shaun Thomas Rudd   15/03/2022 10:26:30 AM

The complete lack of support for a GP who is trying his very best to work through the vaccination quagmire is astounding.
He was obviously very supportive of the governments agenda rightly or wrongly, the complaints body should have advised the unknown complainant to pull their head in as he or she is one of the many unsupportive people of the hard demanding work that GPs who do vaccinations have done over the past year plus.
Support the profession do not reply to simplistic vexatious complaints the wokeness is palpable!

Dr Henry Arthur Berenson   15/03/2022 10:39:04 AM

The complainant refers to Dr Holliday as Mr Simon. That is revealing in itself. The Commission responded to an unknown complainant. Justice denied.

Dr Max Sarma   15/03/2022 11:47:37 AM

Serious concerns arise here:
1. The lack of due diligence evident in the HCCC complaint assessment and re-formulation suggests procedural unfairness. Either way, there appears to be a failure by the HCCC NSW to make a proper assessment, contrary to the Health Care Complaints Act NSW 1993 s 19.
2. The much bigger issue in the conflation and otherwise, is the HCCC's apparent infringement of this Australian's implied right of freedom of political communication pursuant to the Australian Constitution ss 7, 24, 64, 128, which I think would shield this GP from complaints regarding the political aspects of the complaint as stated. The case of Australian Capital Television v Commonwealth 1992 and subsequent cases spell this out.
I suggest that both should be part of the complaint and if the response is inadequate, a complaint voicing concerns could be made to the HCCC Commissioner or if inadequate to Ms Susan Pearce, Secretary NSW Health, tasked under the HCCC Act s 3A(3) with oversight.

Dr Evan Wayne Ackermann   15/03/2022 12:09:43 PM

The core issue here is that we have an administrative weapon whereby an anonymous complainant can make a vexatious complaint against a member of the medical profession.
The complainant bears no impact /responsibility for being vexatious.
There is only harm to the medico irrespective of innocence.
Whilst I accept the comments regarding misinformation from a news organisation and certain political groups would be an error of judgement - surely it is for those organisations to address - not an anonymous person.
Using the HCCC for this purpose is inappropriate.

Dr Robert Graham Marr, OAM   15/03/2022 12:11:33 PM

Dr Simon Holliday is correct and has been unfairly treated by the HCCC.
I agree that this appears to be an abuse of the HCCC.
Doctors should be free to make political statements particularly if the statements are consistent with the latest medical advice.

Prof Max Kamien, AM. CitWA   15/03/2022 12:15:56 PM

A 21st century day "Star Chamber".

Dr Marc Houghton Heyning   15/03/2022 12:46:48 PM

Sadly, the HCCC did not read the original article, realise the complainent had mis-interpreted Dr Holliday's words as suggesting that there was a connection between over 60yos insisting on Pfizer vaccine and liberals, and thus, there was NO CASE TO ANSWER nor any reason to even let Dr Holliday know a member of the public had misinterpreted a newspaper article. What a waste of time and what a pity Dr Holliday even had to make a submission in reply.

Dr Ben Lloyd Balzer GP   15/03/2022 3:19:46 PM

Compare this to the NSW Law Society which is still self regulating and in far greater need of a complaints commission than the medical profession.

Better still, compare to the NSW Dept of Fair Trading. If you make a complaint about a real estate agent (for example that they are exaggerating the predicted rental of a property for sale), the agent is instantly notified, and the complainant is not told the outcome of the enquiry.

Yet we can be pilloried for any slight perceived imperfection.

It is time to fight back against this Draconian system.

Dr Edward Thomas Wu   15/03/2022 4:00:08 PM

Are "regulators" being regulated too ?

Dr Nicole Gouda   15/03/2022 4:49:04 PM

The whole thing is ludicrous. The HCCC should stick to 'real' complaints of potential malpractice rather than investigate anonymous complaints regarding comments that have no bearing on clinical practice. Shame on them (although not surprising really).
Dr Holliday, sorry for what you have had to endure. Completely unfair!

Dr Faiza Khan   15/03/2022 6:00:28 PM

This has been a constant issue while explaining clinical eligibility versus personal choice especially where it does not align with guidelines. We have had patients accusing us of 'robbing them of their rights' when they ask for invalid exemptions, 'conspiring with agencies' when they do not follow vaccination/mask rules including 'being a cause of their mental health deterioration!'
I have personally always used statements like 'I cannot discuss these from an emotional or political point of view and can only answer questions based on guidance from ATAGI and relevant health authorities,' and it still can lead to a 10 minute appointment turning into a very draining 45 minutes!
It's extremely frustrating to see no proper support from authorities that are meant to decide on matters pertaining to malpractice and negligence rather than 'public pleasing' and is really very very disappointing.
My wholehearted support for our colleagues. 'Thankyou, Dr Holliday.'

Dr Brendan Leslie   15/03/2022 8:55:42 PM

Good on Dr Holliday for having the confidence to speak the truth. Whenever one does this, it is inevitable that feathers will be ruffled and enemies made. But that's often what it takes to make the world a better place.

Dr Susan Margaret McDonald   15/03/2022 9:51:48 PM

I support Dr Holliday one hundred percent and deplore the high handed attitude of the HCCC.
We are all human and we all have our frustrations. Dr Holliday is also a community member and I entirely agree with what he said and his right to say it.

Dr Isaac   15/03/2022 10:56:30 PM

1- The complaint was made about an ARTICLE in Manning Times Newspaper, shouldnt this complaint be directed to the editor of Manning River Times Newspaper to comment? or HCCC is regulating the newspapers these days?!!!
2- The complainant stated in their complaint " we live in democracy not in dictatorship ..." Is the democracy allow the complainant to express their views and not allow the receipiant of the complaint to express their views?!! or the democracy goes in the complainant ways only!!!
3- Was this complaint about medical mishap or misconduct or about political views? I guess it was about political views , so what is the role of HCCC in political views? or are they in support of one party than the others?! very strange interference from HCCC!
4- If the complaint was coming from UNKOWN, how the HCCC responded to them?! or HCCC are bunch of liars! ( OMG apology for the blasphemy ;- )

Dr John Reginald Smart   16/03/2022 2:11:42 PM

Our practice staff endured many months of telephone and face to face abuse during the chaotic Covid vaccine rollout. Our practice manager ended up seeing a cardiologist for chest pain after one of these episodes. Who do GPs complain too?

On one occasion I was criminally threatened during an investigation of a methadone unit, the HCCC failed to respond to my letter outlining the explicit threats despite provision for a seven year prison sentence in their act. The organisation is bad news.

Dr Benjamin David Ewald   19/03/2022 9:01:19 AM

I fully support Dr Holliday who is a leader within the profession. In this case the complainant did not properly read the newspaper article, and the HCCC did not properly read either the article or the complaint. Lets hope this was some junior new staff member at the HCCC who can be instructed how to engage their critical facilities before taking action. If this is how the whole organisation does its work its in need of serious reform.
Dr Ben Ewald, Newcastle.

Dr Simon Mark Holliday   19/03/2022 5:02:49 PM

I thank everybody for sharing my concern about the ability of the HCCC to avoid being weaponised by those opposed to public health activities. I did write straight back to them and never received a reply. I also saw my local member and the correspondence went to the Minister for Health. I only received the Ministers reply a week ago, which re-iterated the HCCC statements and said the matter had been "discontinued" by the HCCC.
I thank the considered advise of Dr Max Sarma. However, having spent a lot of time preparing careful comments on the matter to both the HCCC and the Minister and then going public after not hearing from either, I don't see the public servants or those parliamentarians responsible as interested at all in whether the HCCC actions are based on fact or hearsay. I am just glad we don't live in the times of the McCarthy trials or I definitely would have gone down. Dr Wu's question remains "Who regulates the regulators?"

Dr Simon Mark Holliday   19/03/2022 5:03:29 PM

In response to Dr Relf, I would say Craig Kelly was still in the Liberal party when he began his anti-vax speeches. I recall the PM sanctioned this anti-vax position by kindly explaining to us all that the Liberal Party was a "broad church." Subsequently, Mr Kelly resigned from the Liberal Party of his own free will yet continued to support all their legislation.
Dr Isaac asks if this complaint refers to a medical mishap. The complainant ticked the box that the complaint concerned their medical treatment. Not sure the HCCC or the Medical Board rep involved read that. Dr Isaac also asks if doctors are allowed to have political views. As Dr Robert Marr (ex-DRS) said "Doctors should be free to make political statements particularly if the statements are consistent with the latest medical advice." We are not employees of the HCCC or NSW Health.

Dr Simon Mark Holliday   19/03/2022 5:03:50 PM

Dr John Smart reports that he was criminally threatened during a HCCC investigation and despite the legislation making threatening any party to such proceedings a criminal offense, nothing happened. I had the same experience the only time that I have reported a doctor to the Medical Board. It was for aggressive behaviour to staff and patients. I provided my name but the Board or HCCC refused to follow through with the matter without informing the doctor of my name. I consented to this whereupon the doctor issued a death threat to me. I took an AVO out (my first and only one) and relocated my family home which was on an isolated farm. The doctor moved interstate, dropped their NSW registration and the case was dropped with no investigation or penalties.
Finally, I agree with Dr Ben Ewald that the organisation is in serious need of reform. Are any political parties willing to initiate this or would the Sir Humphreys advising them warn that this would be a very brave decision?