An interview with Council President Associate Professor Richard Walsh

With a long and successful career in medicine, Associate Professor Richard Walsh comes to the Medical Council of NSW with a distinguished record. We spoke with Dr Walsh about his career and his vision for the Council as its President.  

Medical Council of NSW (MCNSW): Tell me about how you got into medicine.

Associate Professor Richard Walsh (RW): I was born to two doctors. My mother was a paediatrician and my father was Dean of Medicine at UNSW. It was inspired by my parents that I went into medicine.

I've been an anaesthetist in private and public hospital practice as since 1980 in various Sydney hospitals and clinics and in the Southern Highlands.

MCNSW: How has medicine evolved during your career?

RW: The standard of care has risen dramatically with the advances in medical technology. When I was a medical student, there was no such thing as a CT scan. The only imaging we had was X-rays but doctors do amazing things with diagnostic tools now.

I’ve noticed expectations of doctors’ behaviour have changed. When I was a young doctor, we had no such thing as the Healthcare Complaints Commission. Doctors were “God” and no-one complained. We’re only talking three to four decades ago. Now the expectations of the public of doctors’ behaviour are much higher. That is reflected in the standards the profession imposes on itself too.

MCNSW: Why is the work of the Medical Council important to doctors?

RW: By working with and for the public, medical regulation aims to maintain and improve trust in the profession. When we identify a practitioner whose conduct, performance or health may place patients at risk we work with medical defence organisations and other professionals to address these issues and remediate poor performance. We aim to protect the public by imposing practice conditions while this happens.  

Although the work of the Council has traditionally been reactive to complaints, more recently we’ve been trying to identify doctors who may be at risk of being the subject of complaints.  In this way we’re working to prevent problems before they arise.

Many people misunderstand the role of the Council. Some continue to see us advocates for the doctor who has been the subject of a complaint. Others think we are here to punish doctors. In reality, we are here to protect the public.

All of us can help by speaking up if we see concerning behaviour by our peers.

MCNSW: How do you think doctors view regulators?

RW: It’s a difficult thing. I think most doctors don’t consider the role of the Council until they have a complaint against them. We know the Council’s processes are very stressful. So it’s to some extent natural that they see the Medical Council as essentially disciplinary and our actions as punishment, which is absolutely not the case. We try to change attitudes by involving medical schools and junior doctors, colleges and insurers. We want to help reduce risk to patients and doctors alike.

MCNSW: You’ve been President since July, what is your vision for the Medical Council and how have you started to implement it?

RW: We are really looking towards a more holistic approach to regulation. The traditional approach that has been used in NSW distinguishes “this is a performance issue”, “this is a conduct issue”, “and this doctor has a health problem”. We think a more holistic model will benefit the public and practitioners in achieving faster, more effective outcomes for all involved and we are currently undertaking reforms to make this happen.

I’d also like to see an improvement in the speed with which complaints are handled. That will help enhance both practitioners’ confidence in the regulatory process and maintain the confidence of the public in the profession.

MCNSW: Finally, why did you decide to become involved with the Medical Council?

RW: I enjoy getting involved in the medical profession both within and beyond my own anaesthetics practice. Throughout my career I’ve enjoyed contributing through the Australian Society of Anaesthetists, the ANZ College of Anaesthetists and the World Federation of Societies of Anaesthesiologists. I don’t enjoy medical politics. I prefer a direct role in improving professional standards and my work on Council is a way of doing that.

We are really looking towards a more holistic approach to regulation