Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency - Former psychologist reprimanded and disqualified for professional misconduct

Former psychologist reprimanded and disqualified for professional misconduct

02 Jun 2022

A former psychologist who had an inappropriate relationship with a patient, and deceived the Psychology Board in the subsequent investigation, has been reprimanded by a tribunal and disqualified from applying for registration for three years.

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (the tribunal) found Ms Vesela Popovski had engaged in professional misconduct in that she:

  • breached the boundaries of the psychologist-patient relationship by engaging in an inappropriate dual relationship, including a social and/or close personal and/or sexual relationship with her patient/former patient between March 2010 and 30 June 2010 and 1 July 2010 and February 2011, and
  • attempted to deceive and/or mislead the Psychology Board of Australia (the Board) and/or the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) about the nature of her previous relationship with the patient during the Board’s investigation into her conduct.

The patient attended 12 consultations with Ms Popovski, a registered psychologist, between October 2009 and April 2010 under two mental health care plans in connection with his family breakdown and associated symptoms of mixed anxiety and depression.

The Board received a notification (complaint) about Ms Popovski in August 2015 and, following an investigation, filed a notice of allegations in the tribunal, alleging professional misconduct, in March 2018.

During the course of the investigation, Ms Popovski advised Ahpra that:

  • she had never had an intimate relationship with the patient, nor any other patient
  • it was her usual practice to make follow-up calls to patients to see how they were progressing, and that these were the calls she had made
  • she could not recall any contact with the patient outside of treatment sessions, except for a brief chance encounter, and
  • denied dating the patient saying, ‘he was never my boyfriend and we never had an intimate relationship’.

Ms Popovski closed her clinical practice in January 2016 and wrote to Ahpra in February 2016 advising that, due to family matters, she had decided to retire from psychology practice.

Under the National Law, the Board may choose to continue investigations and disciplinary action after a person’s registration as a psychologist has ended.Ahpra asked Ms Popovski to respond further in October 2016 to the issues under investigation.

Her response included describing the patient as an acquaintance, their interactions as chance meetings and never being of a romantic or sexual in nature. She repeated these statements in April 2017 when given another opportunity to respond to the allegations.

When Ms Popovski was sent a statement made by the notifier (her former patient) she denied the allegations and the Board subsequently filed a referral in the tribunal in March 2018.

During the tribunal proceedings, the Board provided a witness statement from the patient to Ms Popovski. It made clear the significant and detrimental impact the relationship had on him, with his account, that the relationship clearly flowed from the psychologist-patient relationship.

In July 2018, Ms Popovski filed a half-page statement which amounted to a confession. She recanted her previous denials and admitted she had engaged in the alleged conduct. Ms Popovski said that after having read the patient’s statement, she had to ‘confront the truth’.

The tribunal found that Ms Popovski’s conduct breached the code of ethics that applies to registered psychologists and was completely unacceptable.

‘She entered into a sexual relationship with a vulnerable person who she had provided treatment as a psychologist, clearly in breach of relevant ethical codes. She went on to consistently and methodically lie about her conduct until contrary evidence was overwhelming.’

The tribunal found no hesitation in finding Ms Popovski not of good character and not a fit and proper person to engage in psychology or hold registration as a psychologist. Her conducted amounted to professional misconduct as alleged.

Ms Popovski was reprimanded and disqualified from applying for registration as a psychologist for three years from 29 January 2019.

Read the tribunal’s full decision on the AustLII website.

1 The Health Practitioner Regulation National Law, as in force in each state and territory (the National Law).

 
 
 
Page reviewed 2/06/2022