This doctor is in jail for sexual assault. His medical career might not be over

This doctor is in jail for sexual assault. His medical career might not be over

March 25, 2023

Key points

  • Dr Martin Lee was sentenced to 12 months prison for sexually assaulting four patients between 2017 and 2020. 
  • Nikki Bromley made a complaint to AHPRA in February 2021. 
  • She sai AHPRA’s investigation was re-traumatising as she had to repeatedly explain the attack. 
  • Dr Lee still has not been de-registered from the medical industry. 

Fossicking for gold in Victoria’s central highlands was where Nikki Bromley used to feel most safe. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after a head-on car crash as a teenager, the hobby cleared her mind.

That changed in 2020 when her treating doctor, Martin Lishexian Lee, sexually assaulted her in bushland near Ballarat.

The attack was traumatising but she says trying to report him to the medical watchdog, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, worsened her suffering.

Bromley says AHPRA’s investigation re-traumatised her. Credit:Charlotte Grieve

The investigation was plagued by delays, inaction and insensitive interviewing techniques, she says, and today, after he was convicted for sexually assaulting Bromley and three other women last month, AHPRA is still yet to reach a conclusion on his future as a doctor.

“All I wanted was for him not to be able to be a doctor, to protect other people,” the 47-year-old says. “If I thought I was broken before, this whole experience just stripped me bare.”

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler and state ministers pledged last month to take “urgent action” to improve AHPRA’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations. This action followed media revelations the healthcare watchdog is plagued by systemic failures – ranging from investigation delays, privacy law breaches and a toxic culture within its own ranks.

Martin Lee is in prison for sexually assaulting four patients. One patient says AHPRA was hopeless.Credit:LinkedIn

Lee was sentenced to 12 months in prison after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting four patients between 2017 and 2020. A Ballarat magistrate called for him to never practise again.

AHPRA’s investigation, now in its third year, is ongoing, and although Lee has agreed to stop practising in the interim, he remains registered and, once released from prison, can apply to resume his medical practice.

“What is the point of AHPRA?” Bromley says.

The attack

Bromley grew up in regional Victoria and when her doctor’s surgery in Ararat shut down about 2017, she travelled to Avoca for treatment at the now-defunct Tristar Medical Group clinic where Lee worked.

During one session, she explained how fossicking helped her mental health. Lee asked to join to learn about the technique, so he could recommend it to patients struggling with mental health problems. She agreed, and on June 17, 2020, they headed for the hills.

“Everything seemed normal until I parked the car,” she would later write in a complaint to AHPRA.

As Bromley was retrieving gear from the boot, Lee pushed himself against her, grabbed her breasts and tried to kiss her, according to the complaint.

Bromley froze, but then pushed him off her and started talking about her boyfriend. “He was visibly aroused,” she said. “His eyes [were] very creepy.”

She drove Lee back into town, ignored his messages and saw another doctor. Two months later, she needed a medical script and sought to have it sent to the chemist when the receptionist encouraged her to come into the clinic.

“I answered with I really don’t want to come in as Dr Lee had sexually assaulted me and the response, I got was, yes, he’s unfortunately been known for that!” she wrote in the complaint.

Worried about other patients, she decided to report him to AHPRA in February 2021.

AHPRA has emergency powers to immediately suspend a practitioner’s registration while an investigation is completed. It would take almost three months before they reached an interim agreement with Lee to stop him practising and seven months before they reported him to Victoria Police.

AHPRA chief executive Martin Fletcher last month called for law changes to improve patient rights after telling ABC’s Four Corners that processes for handling sexual assault complaints had been “radically redesigned and improved” over the past five years.

However, Bromley says she had to explain the sexual assault to several different AHPRA investigators, over an estimated 15 phone calls. The experience aggravated her PTSD and left her feeling anxious and depressed, as she was forced to re-live the ordeal.

“Trying to make sure the public was safe from the doctor who was a sexual predator was not an easy thing to go through,” she says.

A spokesman for AHPRA acknowledged that recalling offences could be difficult, and claimed AHPRA tried to minimise trauma for victims.

“Unfortunately, it is not possible for us to take action without having the appropriate evidence,” the spokesman says.

Bromley says AHPRA should have forwarded her complaint to Ballarat’s specialised sexual offence unit immediately. Instead, she says AHPRA investigators told her months after her complaint was lodged she would need to make a statement to police or no action could be taken.

“The detective said, ‘I believe you’. That meant everything.”

AHPRA informed police they had found previous complaints had been made to Lee’s employer. Police then found evidence that between 2017 and 2020, he abused his position as a doctor to conduct inappropriate breast examinations on three different women.

One woman sought Lee’s medical treatment for a rash but under the guise of a routine inspection, he exposed her breasts and pinched her body. Another woman went to Lee for a mental health assessment, when he groped her breasts in another inspection, later deemed unnecessary by experts, according to people familiar with the police investigation who were not authorised to speak publicly.

A spokesman for AHPRA says Lee’s employer failed to inform the regulator about the complaints, despite laws requiring mandatory reporting of all sexual misconduct allegations.

“We are very grateful that this notifier came forward. Without her courage, we may never have known about Dr Lee’s offending against her, or about the previous allegations which had been kept from AHPRA,” the spokesman says.

Asked whether AHPRA would now launch an audit of Tristar doctors given the history of non-reporting, a spokesman said it could not comment but pointed to consequences for employers that failed to make mandatory notifications.

‘Fall from grace’

Within three months of launching its investigation, police charged Lee with four counts of sexual assault. He pleaded guilty and last month was sentenced to 12 months in prison and 24 months of community service.

In delivering the sentence, Magistrate Hugh Radford said Lee had breached the trust of his patients and should never practise medicine again.

“It is a significant fall from grace, not only personally but within the medical community and within your profession,” Radford said, according to local media reports.

AHPRA has restarted its investigation after it was paused during the criminal proceedings. A spokesman says Lee would need to apply to the Medical Board if he wanted to practise medicine again after his release from prison.

That application would likely be referred to a tribunal to determine future disciplinary action which could include fines or restrictions on his practice, such as mentoring or education.

Bromley says she has not been contacted by AHPRA since Lee was convicted and she remains concerned that he could one day practise again.

She pointed to Lee’s online AHPRA profile, which lists the temporary suspension but does not mention the criminal conviction or ongoing AHPRA investigation.

“Isn’t the whole point to look up doctors to see if they’ve done something wrong?” Bromley says.

Family Medical Group, which bought Tristar after it collapsed last year, was contacted for comment. Lee was contacted for comment.

Support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or from the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service at 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).

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