26 Oct 2020
A Victorian nurse has been reprimanded and had education and mentoring conditions imposed on his registration after being found to have engaged in professional misconduct.
On 8 March 2019, the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia (the Board) referred Mr Christopher Welsh, a registered nurse, to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) alleging he engaged in professional misconduct.
The Board alleged that on 11-12 August 2017 at the Alfred Hospital, Mr Welsh transgressed the boundaries of the nurse/patient relationship by engaging in sexualised communications with his patient, Mr ND, and making comments of a personal nature unrelated to clinical care. It was further alleged that following Mr ND’s discharge on 12 August 2017, Mr Welsh became friends with Mr ND on Facebook and engaged in sexually explicit conversation with Mr ND via Facebook Messenger.
The first stage of the proceedings was heard on 28-29 November 2019. VCAT was satisfied that Mr Welsh had engaged in the Messenger Conversation with Mr ND following his discharge from hospital. Mr Welsh did not dispute this allegation. VCAT, however, was not satisfied on the evidence presented that the alleged conduct at the hospital occurred.
The second stage of the proceedings was heard on 19 June 2020 around the Messenger Conversation and the characterisation of Mr Welsh’ conduct. VCAT made its findings on 2 July 2020.
VCAT found that Mr Welsh’s participation in the Messenger Conversation was conduct substantially below the standard reasonably expected of a nurse of an equivalent level of training or experience and amounted to professional misconduct. The Messenger Conversation was a significant breach of the Code of Conduct and the requirement to maintain professional boundaries between nurse and patient.
VCAT found that despite the limited nature of the interactions between Mr Welsh and Mr ND, ‘the nature and extent of the power imbalance between Mr Welsh and Mr ND makes the conduct of Mr Welsh in the Messenger Conversation ‘deserving of more than passing censure’.
“This case is yet another illustration of the dangers for health practitioners using modern and informal technologies to engage in communications with patients.”
The Board sought a suspension of one to three months. VCAT held a period of suspension was not necessary or appropriate, noting there was no suggestion of Mr Welsh engaging in similar behaviour before or since; he had continued to work for three years without incident; had strong referee support; and had contributed to the public good through volunteer work. VCAT held that a reprimand was necessary. noting that ‘a reprimand is a strong form of censure, not just a ‘slap on the wrist’, and that “the tribunal must denounce such conduct and send a clear message to the nursing profession that it will not be tolerated.”
VCAT also imposed conditions on Mr Welsh’s registration relating to education and mentoring, to be reviewed after 14 months. VCAT’s decisions in this matter on 24 December 2019 and 2 July 2020 are published on the Austlii website.