Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency - What’s the point of protected titles?

What’s the point of protected titles?

22 Dec 2021

Recently, there’s been some debate about protected titles and how they work to protect the public. Ahpra and the National Boards provide the following guidance to help inform the discussion. 

 

Key points
  • All registered health practitioners should be careful about how they describe and advertise themselves to patients and the public to ensure they don’t mislead anyone.
  • Only those qualified and registered as medical specialists are legally able to call themselves a medical specialist or to use a specialist title.
    • For example, a medical practitioner without specialist qualifications and registration as a ‘specialist anaesthetist’ must not call themselves an ‘anaesthetist’. This applies similarly to other recognised specialty areas of practice.
  • Ahpra and the Medical Board of Australia take concerns about practitioners misrepresenting their qualifications and registration seriously and may act to correct situations where this has occurred. 
 

What is a protected title?

In Australia, the titles of registered health professions are 'protected' by law. This is important because they can act as a sort of shorthand for patients and consumers. When you see someone who uses a protected title (for example, 'medical practitioner'), you can expect that person is appropriately trained and qualified in that profession, registered, and that they are expected to meet safe and professional standards of practice.

The protected titles under the National Law* can be accessed here.

What are protected specialist titles?

Medicine, dentistry and podiatry also have approved specialist titles for their professions. This means that a practitioner who uses these titles to describe themselves, has additional training and qualifications in a specialty field. For example, a medical practitioner who has additional training and qualifications in neurosurgery and meets the requirements for specialist registration, can use the protected title ‘specialist neurosurgeon’ or simply refer to themselves as a ‘neurosurgeon’. 

You can check if a practitioner has specialist registration online Register of practitioners.

How does title protection help protect the public?

Recently, there’s been some debate about how protected titles are understood particularly by patients. Primarily this has been around the use of the title ‘cosmetic surgeon’. Cosmetic surgeon is not a protected specialist title. This means that any medical practitioner could call themselves a ‘cosmetic surgeon’. In doing so, they are still expected to exercise their professional judgement and work within the scope of their individual competence, education and training.

Guided by the National Law, we work to make sure that registered health practitioners meet the standards of their profession, and we will act if we think they pose a risk to the public.

What if a practitioner modifies a protected or specialist title?

If a practitioner is registered to practise in any of the 16 registered health professions, whether they hold specialist registration or not, they are expected to act safely and professionally. This means acting in good faith and working within the scope of their expertise. It also means that they can’t be misleading about the scope of their expertise.

For example, anaesthesia is a recognised specialty in medicine. While ‘specialist anaesthetist’ is the protected title, a medical practitioner cannot drop the ‘specialist’ and call themselves an ‘anaesthetist’ if they are not appropriately trained, educated and registered in anaesthesia. The same applies to all other recognised medical specialties.

Further, it’s a criminal offence for someone who isn’t a registered health practitioner to use a protected or specialist title. There are significant penalties if they do, including possible jail time.

What about cosmetic surgery?

Cosmetic surgery is different because the title ‘cosmetic surgeon’ is not a protected title and cosmetic surgery is not a recognised medical speciality. 

Health Ministers have recognised that this may be confusing for patients and people may reasonably expect anyone who uses the title ‘surgeon’ to have had additional training and qualifications and specialist registration. Health Ministers are currently consulting on whether ‘surgeon’ should be a protected title under the National Law, and in what specialties it should apply, or if other changes should be made to help the public better understand the qualifications of medical practitioners. You can find more information on the consultation here: https://engage.vic.gov.au/medical-practitioners-use-title-surgeon-under-national-law

This may be a helpful step to support patients and consumers make more informed choices about their healthcare. However, all health practitioners are regulated under the National Law and everyone in the 16 regulated health professions is expected to exercise professional judgement and work within the scope of their individual competence, education and training, whether they hold specialist registration or not. 

* Health Practitioner Regulation National Law, as in force in each state and territory.

More information
 
 
Page reviewed 22/12/2021