Doctors considering retirement

Preparing for retirement

For doctors, retiring involves considering many elements of a business built up over many years of practice. These are some of the medico-legal factors to consider when planning for a smooth transition.

Wednesday, 3 April 2024

Quick guide

  • Check how much notice you need to give employers, staff and government bodies.
  • Ensure you have transferred patient care appropriately.
  • Make sure medical records are up to date and transferred or stored as required.

Preparation is key

Preparing for retirement involves many issues: professional, financial and psychological. It can be challenging to step back from a practice you have built up over many years. Taking time to consider and plan your transition to retirement can make the process smoother.

This factsheet focuses on medico-legal aspects to address once you have decided to close or step back from your medical practice. For other resources to help you prepare, see the Avant website: Planning for retirement - what you need to know

The steps involved in transitioning your practice will vary depending on whether you own your practice or are contracted or employed at a practice. However, most doctors will need to consider the following issues.

Advising practice, partners or staff

Once you have decided to retire or step-back from your practice, you will need to inform colleagues and staff. If you:

  • Work in the practice (as an employee or contractor), you will need to give notice. If your contract does not specify the notice period, you need to give a ‘reasonable notice’. That amount can vary, so seek advice if you are not sure.
  • Own the practice and engage staff, you will need to notify your staff of the practice closure and consider whether redundancy payments must be made. If you are selling the practice, staff may need time to sign new contracts with the new business owner.
  • Are a director, partner or associate in the practice, you may have obligations under the relevant agreement. Seek advice on your situation if you are unsure.

Notify authorities

You will need to contact:

  • Medicare, so that provider numbers at a particular location are closed.
  • Ahpra, if you intend to rescind your registration prior to the annual renewal. Otherwise at your next annual renewal you can opt not to renew or make other changes. Your Aphra registration will end on 31 October if you do not renew it.

Make sure you inform referring practitioners and hospitals about your plans - what date you will be leaving or closing.

Introduce your successor if you are not closing the practice.

Let any referring doctors know when you will retire and how patient records may be accessed after that date. Advise relevant parties where they should send information and patient reports.

Notifying patients and transferring care

Let patients know ahead of your planned retirement date.  If you are an employee or contractor, you should speak with the practice about what you can tell patients and what the practice will tell patients.

In some states and territories (Victoria, ACT) practices must publish a notice in the local media if the practice is being sold or transferred.

In jurisdictions where there are no specific legal requirements, the Medical Board of Australia’s Good Medical Practice: A Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia requires you to:

  • give advance notice to patients where possible, and
  • facilitate the continuing medical care of your patients, including the transfer or appropriate management of patient records.

Consider whether you need to put a message on the practice voicemail or answering machine, or place notices at the surgery, on your practice website, email signature, or social media pages if the jurisdiction has no specific legal requirements.  Also consider placing a notice on any booking platform which you may use.

You may need to stop taking new bookings before your actual retirement date so that you have time to provide appropriate follow-up care (unless the practice will be continuing after your retirement).

Follow up and transferring care

As far as possible, you should ensure patient records are up to date and that any investigations have been followed up.

You should take steps to make sure that investigative tests or referrals are acted upon appropriately and the results communicated in a timely manner.

This may involve providing a letter of transfer for patients listing:

  • investigation results
  • time, type, and nature of follow-up that they will require, and
  • an up-to-date medication list.

If another practitioner is taking over your practice, complete a list of high-risk patients to pass on to your successor. This will include patients undergoing treatment or who have recently undergone investigations at the time you cease practice.

Advise patients how to access their medical records following your retirement.

Patients who do not wish to nominate a new doctor should be provided with a letter which confirms that the practice is closing and that they should arrange to see a new doctor for ongoing medical care.  You should maintain a list of these patients and the date on which this letter was provided to them for your records.

Transferring, retaining or disposing of medical records

Your responsibility to store original medical records safely and securely does not end when you retire. With patient permission, you can transfer a copy of the information in the record to a new practitioner. Patients may choose to collect a copy of their record. Records that you retain need to be stored safely and securely. It is also important to keep a register of what was done with each record.

Transferring to a successor

If another practitioner is buying or taking over your practice, patients may choose to have their record transferred to your successor. You will need patient consent before you can share their health information in this way.

Legally, the usual process to transfer original records to a practitioner successor is through a clause in the sale of business contract. Your private solicitor will be able to advise you regarding a sale of business contract.

Make sure to include a clause that allows you to access copies of the medical records of your past patients if you ever need these in the future – for example because of a complaint or claim.

Transferring to another practitioner

If patients choose to transfer their care to another practice, the new practitioner will need access to their health information. Usually this involves providing a copy or summary of the patient’s medical record.

Patients will need to sign an authority to transfer a copy of the record to the new practitioner. You can find a sample authority on Avant’s website: Planning for retirement - what you need to know.  Again, you should maintain a register of the name of the patient, the date on which they provided authority to transfer, and the date on which the records were transferred to the new practitioner.

Providing the record to the patient

Patients may also choose to collect a copy of their record. Do not provide them with the original version of any hardcopy record.

Retaining original records securely

Any original records you still hold need to be stored so that they remain confidential and secure from damage, loss or theft. They also need to be accessible if patients need to access their health information.

For hard copy records, you may choose to scan the records to maintain an electronic copy. When you have scanned a hard copy record and have confirmed that it has been saved and can be printed, you can destroy the original hard copy of the document (but only after you have confirmed that it is saved securely).

We recommend doctors retain the complete medical record of an adult patient for at least seven years from the date of last entry in the record. Records of children should be kept until they would have reached 25 years old. These are legal requirements in New South Wales, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory. We recommend that doctors in all states and territories follow these requirements.

In some situations, you may need to keep records for longer periods. This could be, for example, because there is a legal claim underway, there has been an adverse outcome, or there is a threat of a complaint or claim. It may be an offence in your state or territory to destroy a document where you know the document is, or is reasonably likely to be, required as evidence in a legal proceeding. If you have any doubt about this, contact Avant for advice.

You can find more information on records requirements in the Avant factsheets: Medical records: the essentials and Storing, retaining and disposing of medical records

Keep a register of any patient records that have been collected or transferred

It is important to keep a record of how you have dealt with all patient records. For each record we recommend you document:

  • patient identifying information - name and date of birth
  • the dates covered by the record
  • how the record has been dealt with:
    • a copy provided to a new practice
    • a summary provided to the new practice
    • the record itself transferred to another doctor
    • a copy provided to the patient
  • how the record was transferred (pathology courier, registered post etc)
  • the date this action was taken
  • the name and address of the new treating doctor or practice where the record was transferred
  • the patient consent to transfer
  • any correspondence with the patient – for example letters advising them the practice is closing.

Australian Privacy Principle (APP) 11 provides that an organisation that holds personal information must take “reasonable steps to destroy personal information or ensure that it is de-identified if it no longer needs the information for any purpose for which it may be used or disclosed under the APPs. If records are not being transferred and they no longer need to be kept for any of the reasons outlined above, it may be appropriate to destroy them securely.

You will need to keep a register of any records that have been destroyed. You can find more information, and an example of a disposal register in the Avant factsheet: Storing, retaining and disposing of medical records

Prescription pads, certificates and drugs

Securely destroy forms and stationery with the practice’s letterhead or address, including prescription pads, WorkCover certificates.

Arrange to dispose of any S4 or S8 drugs. Your state or territory health department will be able to guide you on the process for your jurisdiction.

Closing or transitioning your business

If you are closing or selling your own practice, you will need to take steps to finalise the business – for example:

  • terminating any business leases
  • closing business loans
  • cancelling your business name and registration, closing bank accounts.

If you have outstanding Medicare payments owed to other practitioners, you will also need to finalise these.

If the practice is closing, consider also whether you need to redirect mail, email, or phone calls.

You will also need to remove or amend your practice website and any social media pages.

Your solicitor and accountant will be able to advise on your situation, including your obligations in relation to business and employment records. You can also contact Avant Law for more information.  

Insurances

You can notify changes to an insurer covering a medical practitioner, medical practice, employees, business, building, contents and public liability.

 An Avant member who holds an Avant Practitioner Indemnity Insurance policy will generally be covered for claims or incidents the member has reported during the policy period, and prior to the retirement date. Avant members may be eligible to receive a dividend from the Avant Retirement Rewards Plan (RRP) and can notify Avant of their retirement. Discover eligibility and how to apply for the RRP.

 From their retirement date, medical practitioners who are eligible can obtain run-off cover from the Australian Government’s Run-Off Cover Scheme (ROCS) for indemnity for claims, that have not yet been reported, arising from incidents that occurred prior to their retirement date. Discover how to apply for ROCS.

 If you hold an Avant Practice Medical Indemnity Insurance policy and you sell or close your medical practice, a patient can still make a claim for an event that occurred beforehand. A patient may make the claim against the practice entity, not an individual medical practitioner. The practice entity can purchase run-off cover for events which occurred prior the date the practice entity ceased to exist or operate, or the date the practice entity was merged or acquired. Discover how to apply for Practice Run-off cover.

More information

For medico-legal advice, please contact us on nca@avant.org.au or call 1800 128 268, 24/7 in emergencies.

Disclaimers

Professional indemnity insurance products are issued by Avant Insurance Limited, ABN 82 003 707 471, AFSL 238 765 (‘Avant Insurance’). The information provided by Avant Insurance is general advice only and has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation and needs. You should consider these, having regard to the appropriateness of the advice before deciding to purchase or continue to hold these products. For full details including the terms, conditions, and exclusions that apply, please read and consider the relevant Product Disclosure Statement or policy wording, which are available at www.avant.org.au or by contacting Avant Insurance on 1800 128 268.

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