Health practitioner regulation: a quick guide

30 November 2023

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Rebecca Storen and Leah Ferris
Social Policy and Law & Bills Digest


This quick guide provides an overview of health practitioner regulation in Australia. It first discusses the establishment of the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (National Law) and the National Registration and Accreditation Scheme (National Scheme), then outlines the role of the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency and the National Boards, and key elements of the National Scheme. It then summarises other regulatory structures that health professionals may fall under and provides links to health workforce statistics.

Establishment of the National Law and the National Scheme

In 2006, the Productivity Commission’s Australia’s health workforce report recommended national consolidation of health workforce registration and accreditation functions to facilitate a consistent approach across professions and jurisdictions. Later that year, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed in principle to establish a national registration scheme (to register individuals qualified to practise in selected professions) and a national accreditation scheme (to assess education and training courses), each supported by national profession-specific boards and accreditation authorities (p. 6). Two years later, the Intergovernmental Agreement for a National Registration and Accreditation Scheme for the Health Professions was signed.

The National Scheme was implemented through the adoption of the National Law in all states and territories in 2009 and 2010. The National Law is not a Commonwealth law. Instead, it is enacted and implemented by each state and territory parliament having passed nationally consistent legislation. Under the Intergovernmental Agreement, Queensland is the host jurisdiction and the National Law is set out in a schedule to the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law Act 2009 (Qld). Other jurisdictions enacted either corresponding legislation or legislation applying the Queensland legislation in their jurisdiction. In order for the National Law to be amended, any proposed amendments must be approved by the Ministerial Council (which meets as the Health Ministers Meeting) and passed by the Queensland Parliament (and other state and territory parliaments where required).

The number of professions regulated by the National Law has grown over time, with the Intergovernmental Agreement setting out the agreed process for adding additional health professions to the National Scheme. There are currently 16 professions under 15 Boards in the National Scheme, up from 11 professions on commencement in 2010 (Table 1).

Table 1     Professions in the National Scheme and corresponding National Board

Profession National Board
Joined in 2010
Chiropractic Chiropractic Board of Australia
Dentistry Dental Board of Australia
Medical Medical Board of Australia
Midwifery Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia
Nursing Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia
Optometry Optometry Board of Australia
Osteopathy Osteopathy Board of Australia
Pharmacy Pharmacy Board of Australia
Physiotherapy Physiotherapy Board of Australia
Podiatry Podiatry Board of Australia
Psychology Psychology Board of Australia
Joined in 2012
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Practice Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Practice Board of Australia
Chinese medicine Chinese Medicine Board of Australia
Medical radiation practice Medical Radiation Practice Board of Australia
Occupational therapy Occupational Therapy Board of Australia
Joined in 2018
Paramedicine Paramedicine Board of Australia

Source: Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency and National Boards, A unique and substantial achievement: Ten years of national health practitioner regulation in Australia, 2020, p. 10.

Role of Ahpra and the National Boards

The National Law establishes the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) as the National Agency and provides a framework for a National Health Practitioner Board for each health profession (the National Boards). Both Ahpra and the National Boards are required to take direction from the Ministerial Council in exercising their respective functions under the National Law (Figure 1).

Figure 1    Main groups that administer the National Scheme

Graph - Main groups that administer the National Scheme

Source: ‘What we do’, Ahpra.

The National Scheme is funded by practitioners’ registration fees, with fees set by each National Board to reflect the cost of regulating each profession under the National Law.


Ahpra provides administrative assistance and supports the National Boards to perform their functions. Its role includes:

  • managing applications for registration of health practitioners
  • receiving and investigating complaints about health practitioner performance, health and conduct
  • maintaining a public register of health practitioners.

National Boards

The National Law is administered by the National Boards established for each health profession. Their primary function is to protect the public, and their role includes:

The National Scheme

The National Scheme is made up of several elements and includes registration of health practitioners, maintaining a public register of practitioners, accreditation of education providers and complaints management.

Protected titles

The titles of regulated health professions are protected under the National Law. For example, registered nurse, pharmacist and paramedic are all protected titles, meaning anyone using those titles must be registered with the relevant National Board. In addition, medicine, dentistry and podiatry also have specialist titles approved by the Ministerial Council. If a person is eligible to use a title, they appear on the Register of practitioners. The list of titles may be updated from time to time, which requires amendment to the National Law. As an example, the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (Surgeons) Amendment Act 2023 passed by the Queensland Parliament in September 2023 made ‘surgeon’ a protected title for medical practitioners.

Registration of health practitioners

A person who is registered under the National Law to practice in a health profession is a ‘registered health practitioner’ and must meet the relevant National Board’s registration standards. The registration standards have 5 core requirements, with some variation on the specifics between Boards:

Health practitioners need to renew their registration each year, with different renewal dates for different professions.  

Students who are undertaking a National Board approved program of study or undertaking clinical training in a health profession under the National Scheme are also required to register with the relevant Board. Under the National Law, the education provider is responsible for ensuring that its students are registered. There are no fees for student registration.

Register of practitioners

Ahpra is required to maintain an online register of practitioners. This register enables anyone to search for a health practitioner and identifies any condition, undertaking or limitation that has been placed on a person’s registration. Ahpra also maintains a list of people whose registration has been cancelled and a list of people who have agreed not to practice. Anyone on these lists is not allowed to provide services as a health practitioner.

Training and education accreditation

Accreditation of study programs helps ensure provision of high quality training and education of health practitioners.

Each health profession has an accreditation authority that works closely with the relevant National Board (nursing and midwifery are grouped together). Accreditation authorities and National Boards have separate, but complementary functions under the National Law.

The accreditation authorities develop and review the accreditation standards, and assess study and education programs. Some of the accreditation authorities also assess overseas assessment authorities and internationally qualified practitioners.

The Boards are responsible for approving the accreditation standards and the education programs and determining if an overseas-qualified practitioner qualifies for registration.

In 2022–23, there were more than 800 accredited education programs, and 19,288 overseas-qualified practitioners gained registration in Australia (pp. 47, 56).

Australian Medical Council

The Australian Medical Council (AMC), the accreditation authority for medicine, is responsible for developing standards for medical education and training across all stages of medical education. The AMC accredits Australian and Australasian primary medical education programs provided through universities, and specialist medical training provided through the specialist medical colleges.

The AMC-accredited specialist medical training programs provide qualifications to practice in a recognised medical speciality. Specialist registration is only available to medical practitioners who have been assessed by an AMC-accredited specialist college as being eligible for fellowship (or recognised equivalent courses).

For information on Australian Government funding for university medical places, please see the Parliamentary Library’s FlagPost on this topic.

Complaints about health practitioners

Part 8 of the National Law sets out the processes by which notifications (complaints) may be made to Ahpra about a registered health practitioner. As NSW and Queensland have declared that they are not participating in these processes (NSW wished to retain its existing processes upon the introduction of the National Law, while Queensland established a single-entry complaints management system in 2013), different arrangements exist for reporting complaints in those jurisdictions (known as the co-regulatory jurisdictions). Upon receiving a notification, Ahpra must then refer the matter to the relevant Board and in the case of Queensland and NSW, the relevant co-regulatory agency. In some circumstances, Ahpra may refer notifications to the police and/or other national or state-based complaints bodies (p. 15).

The National Law also requires health practitioners to make a notification to Ahpra about a registered health practitioner in certain circumstances and to report certain events to the relevant Board. A Board may also decide to investigate a practitioner on its own motion.

Upon receiving a complaint, the Board will assess the concern and can then take a number of actions, including dismissing the concern, taking immediate action or referring the matter for investigation. For the most serious matters, a National Board or panel may refer the matter to a tribunal.

There are a number of possible outcomes from raising a concern. Some of these are decided by a National Board and some can only be decided by a panel or a tribunal (for example, only a tribunal can cancel a health practitioner’s registration).

Complaints can also be made to the National Health Practitioner Ombudsman regarding the activities of Ahpra, the Boards and the accreditation authorities in regulating health practitioners.

Other governance and regulation for health professionals

Professions outside of the scheme

Not all professions that work in the health and care sectors come under the National Scheme – for example, social workers and dietitians are ‘unregistered’ professions. Unregistered practitioners are regulated by a variety of self-regulatory mechanisms and codes of conduct, and are subject to state and territory health complaints schemes.

In 2015, the COAG Health Council agreed to the terms of the National Code of Conduct for health care workers, setting out practice and conduct standards for unregistered health workers, with each jurisdiction to implement and regulate the National Code.

Other regulations

Health service provision is a complex system with overlapping regulator jurisdictions. Alongside the regulation of individual health practitioners through the National Scheme, people working in the system are likely to have obligations through other mechanisms. Depending on the setting, this may include common law obligations, care standards, medicine or therapeutic goods regulations, occupational health and safety obligations, and Australian consumer law.

Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care (ACSQHC)

The ACSQHC is the national body responsible for leading and coordinating improvements in health care safety and quality, notably through the development of the National Safety and Quality Health Service (NSQHS) Standards. State and territory health departments determine which services must be accredited, but in general, all public and private hospitals, day procedure services and public dental practices must have accreditation. Alongside the NSQHS Standards, the ACSQHC also undertakes work on several other sets of standards, such as the National Safety and Quality Primary and Community Healthcare Standards, clinical care standards and the clinical care standard of the Aged Care Quality Standards.

State and territory health departments

State and territory health departments have a range of regulatory functions that can directly and indirectly impact health practitioners. For example:

  • public hospital staff may be required to have specific vaccinations before they can work in a clinical setting
  • the jurisdictions’ medicines and poisons laws can, among other things, enable pharmacists to provide some vaccines and determine the use of electronic scripts.

Health workforce statistics

Ahpra publishes a range of reports including quarterly performance reports by state and territory. These reports provide information on the health practitioners registered in the jurisdiction and some comparison over time. The National Boards also release statistics for each practitioner group (for example, see the registration data for nurses and midwives). In 2022–23 there were 877,119 registered health practitioners. Table 2 shows the totals by profession.

Table 2     Total number of registered health practitioners by profession, 2022–23

Profession Total
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Practitioner 887
Chinese medicine practitioner 4,823
Chiropractor 6,345
Dental practitioner 26,692
Medical practitioner 136,742
Medical radiation practitioner 18,976
Midwife 7,683
Nurse 453,515
Nurse and midwife* 26,555
Occupational therapist 29,742
Optometrist 6,762
Osteopath 3,325
Paramedic 24,164
Pharmacist 36,425
Physiotherapist 42,098
Podiatrist 6,038
Psychologist 46,347
Total 877,119

* Registrants who hold dual registration as both a nurse and a midwife.

Source: Ahpra, Annual report 2022–23 supplementary data tables, Table R5.

Further information is available through the National Health Workforce Dataset, which includes registration and survey data. The Department of Health and Aged Care makes some of this data available through a dashboard and additional information may be accessed through the health workforce data tool. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare also releases health workforce information from time to time.

Information on regulated health practitioners and professions that are outside of the National Scheme is available from the Australian Bureau of Statistics Census of Population and Housing and its regular labour force survey. This data also informs the interactive Australian Jobs Market website and reports from Jobs and Skills Australia.


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