Today’s question is really about the meaning of the word ‘professional’. I’m told that in South Australia,
… SA ambulance rolled out new ambulances to volunteer (unpaid) stations which have wording, “Professional service provided by volunteers from…” see https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-03/ambulance-volunteers-rewarded-with-new-fleet/12317444
There is a clear divide on thoughts of the above from paid career paramedics, volunteers (cert IV) and paid ambulance officers (cert IV). Not that I think qualifications matter, the simple fact is healthcare professionals are not crewing these ambulances when the public think they are.
Are there any issues of misrepresentation of the workforce to the public? Can non paramedics say they are professionals in the prehospital care or ambulance context?
My short answer is ‘no; there are no issues’. Let us now look at that in detail.
The Health Practitioner Regulation National Law protects the use of titles. There is no suggestion that the volunteers are using the title paramedic (noting of course that a volunteer may indeed be a registered paramedic).
The Australian Consumer law provides that a person shall not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive (Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (Cth); Schedule 2, cll 18 and 29). Clause 29 says
(1) A person must not, in trade or commerce, in connection with the supply or possible supply of … services or in connection with the promotion by any means of the supply or use of … services:…
(b) make a false or misleading representation that services are of a particular standard, quality, value or grade…
First, I doubt SA Ambulance are engaged in trade or commerce but they may be – see United Firefighters Union of Australia (‘UFU’) v Country Fire Authority (‘CFA’)  FCA 17 (31 January 2014) (February 12, 2014)).
If we assume SA Ambulance is engaged in trade and commerce, can a claim of ‘Professional service provided by volunteers…’ be misleading or deceptive? The answer to that depends what professional means. It may mean a person who is paid rather than an amateur or hobbyist, or it may mean a member of a profession. It is axiomatic that volunteers are not being paid; and if we put aside volunteers who are registered paramedics we might infer that many, if not most are not members of a recognised, registered healthcare profession. On those meanings the volunteers are not professionals; but they are just two of many possible meanings of the word ‘professional’.
The Cambridge dictionary (online) defines professional as:
- relating to work that needs special training or education:
- having the qualities that you connect with trained and skilled people, such as effectiveness, skill, organization, and seriousness of manner:
- used to describe someone who does a job that people usually do as a hobby:
- having the type of job that is respected because it involves a high level of education and training:
The Collins English dictionary has similar definitions and adds as an adjective ‘If you say that something that someone does or produces is professional, you approve of it because you think that it is of a very high standard.
The online Oxford dictionary for English learners has these definitions (emphasis in original):
- doing something as a paid job rather than as a hobby…
- (of sport) done as a paid job rather than as a hobby…
- [only before noun] connected with a job that needs special training or skill, especially one that needs a high level of education…
- (of people) having a job which needs special training and a high level of education…
- showing that somebody is well trained and has a lot of skill SYNONYM competent
He dealt with the problem in a highly professional
Many of the performers were very professional.
People trust websites that look professional.
professional in somethingThe consultant was very friendly but professional in his approach.
If the words used are ‘‘Professional service provided by volunteers…’ the word ‘professional’ is an adjective being used to describe the service, not the service providers. SA Ambulance are claiming that their volunteers will provide a professional service that is a service that ‘needs special training and a high level of education’, is delivered to ‘a very high standard’ and with ‘the qualities that you connect with trained and skilled people, such as effectiveness, skill, organization, and seriousness of manner’ even though the people providing that service are volunteers, not someone getting paid to do the job.
Now one might think that volunteers never do a good job but clearly SA Ambulance doesn’t think that otherwise they would not use volunteers. (And if anyone does think that, then they have a pretty low opinion of volunteers with Australia’s emergency services – our volunteer firefighters, rescue and emergency officers and ambulance officers are and should be recognised as providing professional quality services even though they don’t get paid). And even if on occasions an individual fails to live up to professional standards (as might paid paramedics) that doesn’t mean that an agency cannot make a claim as to the level of service they intend and expect to provide.
I fail to see how any person could infer that a statement ‘Professional service provided by volunteers from…’ is holding out that the volunteers are either paid or necessarily a member of a registered health profession. It is a description of the quality of the service provided. It claims that the volunteers are providing a skilled service, with a high level of care with ‘effectiveness, skill, organization, and seriousness of manner’.
Non paramedics cannot hold themselves out as paramedics. There is nothing to stop them, or the organisation for which they volunteer, recognising that they provide a professional service.
On its plain English language meaning there is no potential to hold that this claim is misleading or deceptive. Anyone who thinks it is misleading is not reading the English word ‘professional’ in its ordinary, but multiple meanings.