Australian states and territories are poised to scrap mandatory reporting rules for doctors treating other health professionals for mental health-related issues.
After protracted talks, health ministers have settled on a unified approach to adopt the Western Australian model, which will remove the obligation for treating doctors to report an “impairment” in a doctor-patient except in cases involving sexual misconduct.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed the breakthrough at a meeting with doctors on Friday, saying it would remove a structural barrier that discouraged doctors seeking help for mental-health issues.
“I think we have pretty much reached a point of agreement,” he said.
He said the final form of the accord would be the focus of the next Council of Australian Governments health ministers meeting to be held shortly.
Ministers Brad Hazzard in NSW and Jill Hennessy in Victoria are known to have been firm supporters of the shift, amid a renewed focus on junior doctors’ health and well-being.
But some states had needed “a bit more of a pull to get there”, Mr Hunt said. “We are not only changing the laws, we are sending a message as well.”
Mr Hunt made the announcement while addressing a “grand round” on doctors’ mental health at Frankston Hospital, in his Mornington Peninsula electorate.
In his address he explained his interest was driven by professional concern, but also a “personal passion” for mental-health issues.
He revealed that his mother, who had been a nurse at Frankston Hospital, had struggled with bipolar and manic depression.
“It affected her health,” he said. The last time he saw her had been in an “old-style mental institution”.
Mr Hunt said it was obvious that current mandatory reporting rules in most jurisdictions would have the effect of deterring distressed doctors from seeking help.
“It was a surprise to me, coming into the role, that there was this barrier that doesn’t exist in relation to my profession or to engineers or people in so many walks of life,” he said.
“Of course, that will create a pause. It will prevent people from seeking help … at the moment of early intervention.
“Physician heal thyself is all very well as a concept.”
The WA government declined to adopt the mandatory reporting requirement under the National Law for situations where a clinician learned of a health practitioner’s impairment in the course of a treating relationship.
Like all other doctors, however, WA practitioners are obliged under the law to report doctor-patients who may pose a risk to the public.
Anecdotally, doctors from other jurisdictions have travelled to WA for treatment of a mental-health condition to ensure confidentiality.