According to the Australian Medical Association, a national doctors register will actually jeopardise patient safety. The AMA is urging tomorrow’s meeting of Commonwealth, State and Territory leaders to reconsider plans for a national register, reports the ABC.

But the AMA surely can’t expect its claims to be taken seriously.

The profession has long dressed up challenges to its own interests as issues of “public safety and professional autonomy”. This time its argument is a distraction from something which is a real threat to patient safety: the patent failure of self-regulation of the medical profession.

Recent cases of medical malpractice, such as the so-called “butcher from Bega”, raise a question: why should the health sector be treated so differently to the aviation sector? After all, the deaths and harms being inflicted on patients in the health sector would not be tolerated in the aviation industry.

The failure of medical self-regulation to protect the public shows that it’s just not working, and that there is a pressing need to overhaul medical practitioner regulation in Australia. There is a consensus on this point in policy circles.

CoAG has been moving towards some national regulatory mechanism to ensure that the medical boards and profession are held accountable for their failure to ensure the safety and quality of health care. The states have been pushing for the regulation of medical and non-medical health professionals through the mechanism of national registration and accreditation.

However, these CoAG reforms struck the big rock of professional self-regulation. My understanding is that the Howard Government sided with those health professions who fought to retain professional self-regulation and to prevent regulation because it would undermine professional autonomy. The Coalition government under Howard did not have the political will and courage to challenge this resistance to modernising the medical profession.

My judgement is that the recent publicity around a string of high profile medical disasters will provide a political opportunity for a more reform-orientated Rudd Government to act on national registration. They will give it higher priority, make stronger moves to regulate the health professions, and tie this in with workforces shortages.

Timing, they say, is everything in politics. CoAG is meeting tomorrow in Adelaide. If the opportunity is there to regulate the health profession, will the Rudd Government and the states have the political will and courage to do so?

The answer may depend upon how much support the AMA’s powerful publicity and lobbying machine can marshall, particularly from other health professional groups.

Gary Sauer-Thompson writes at Public opinion. He is also the political and policy advisor for the Chiropractic Association of Australia (National).