Australia's medical colleges: staying relevant in the 21st century

12 Apr 2002

Over the years, Australia's Medical Colleges have attained considerable professional and community respect. However, the respect and standing of the Colleges could rapidly diminish if they can not successfully juggle the joint responsibilities of protecting their independence and remaining accountable to the broader community.

This warning comes from Dr Peter Phelan, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne, in an editorial in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

Dr Phelan says that for most of the 20th century the Colleges have played an important role in our healthcare system. With the Colleges now playing a more active role in community health debates and with people expecting more and more from their health professionals, the Colleges must take control of their own destiny if they are to remain relevant in the 21st century.

The establishment of health policy units such as that of the Royal Australian College of Physicians, which provides an evidence base for the College's views, is an example of the way Colleges can contribute to the debate on health policy issues.

Our Colleges increasingly recognise that they must be actively involved with the community and other key organisations in the healthcare and educational systems and that their activities should be open to external scrutiny. The acceptance of a move to external scrutiny is shown by the strong support of the Colleges for the Australian Medical Council to become the accrediting body for specialist education and professional development programs.

"Accreditation is helping the Colleges to ensure that they are meeting the expectations of their Fellows, trainees, providers of healthcare and consumers, and that they are publicly accountable," Dr Phelan says.

"The community expects that all medical practitioners will maintain their competence and behave in a professionally appropriate way."

"If Colleges are to continue to command the respect and confidence of the medical profession and society, they must not become financially or otherwise dependent on government or other organisations with a vested interest in their opinions and contributions to public debate," Dr Phelan says.

"If taking on contractual work to assist in improvements to healthcare, the Colleges must not be influenced by the provider of the funds, nor should a College build up a bureaucracy or facilities dependent on external funding.

"Political decisions, as has recently happened with the training program for general practitioners, can place a College in a very difficult position," Dr Phelan says.

Dr Phelan concludes by saying that it is only when the responsibility to patients and to the public interest is held to be paramount that members of the medical profession can expect society to accept self-regulation of the profession and to listen carefully to their opinions and advice.

"Colleges must continue to promote these principles to their Fellows and trainees, and Colleges and their Fellows must demonstrate to society their commitment to them," Dr Phelan says.

The Medical Journal of Australia is a publication of the Australian Medical Association.

CONTACT: Dr Peter D Phelan (03) 9421 4291 (B/H)

(0419) 392 437 (A/H)

(03) 9751 1882 (A/H)

Ms Sarah Crichton (0419) 440 076

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