Health ministers have agreed to work towards nationally consistent mandatory reporting rules to support health-seeking by doctors, especially in cases of mental health treatment.
In a breakthrough accord at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting in Brisbane on Friday, the ministers agreed that doctors should be able to seek treatment for health issues with confidentiality.
“A nationally consistent approach to mandatory reporting provisions will provide confidence to health practitioner that they can feel able to seek treatment for their own health conditions anywhere in Australia,” the ministers said in a communique.
However, a consensus among the states and territories is not a given.
At present, only Western Australia does not require a treating practitioner to report a colleague suffering from an impairment. The exemption was adopted in 2014, only after years of intensive lobbying by the AMA’s WA branch.
In other states, current rules deter doctors from help-seeking because of perception that it could ruin their careers.
AMA Federal President Dr Michael Gannon told The Medical Republic that NSW was understood to favour a tweaked version of the WA model, while Queensland was happy with the status quo and South Australia was uncertain.
“There is a possibility we will end up with a less than harmonised model,” he said.
The COAG ministers will reconvene in November to review proposals for amending the rules. After a period of consultation, they will meet again early next year for to decide on amendments and invite national discussions.
Protecting the public from harm was of paramount importance, as was supporting practitioners to seek health and in particular mental health treatment as soon as possible, the OAG communique said.
Dr Gannon commended Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt and WA Health Minister Roger Cook for driving the issue.
“It has been acknowledged that there needs to be a change, that there’s a problem,” he said.
RACGP President Dr Bastian Seidel welcomed the COAG accord, saying College faculties had been lobbying their jurisdictions for the adoption of the WA model.
“GPs are the main treating doctors of all medical practitioners – and are currently required to report practitioners who seek help with a health condition that might affect their work,” Dr Seidel said.
Although well intentioned, mandatory reporting laws are having the opposite of what was intended, because doctors were not seeking the healthcare they needed for fear of being reported.
This is driving issues underground and reducing, rather than increasing, patient safety.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has been an outspoken advocate of change after the issue was linked to a string of suicides by junior doctors in his state earlier this year.
Victorian Health Minister Jill Hennessy has told The Medical Republic she was “very sympathetic” to the need for change.
“Every day doctors prioritise the health and wellbeing of their patients, so it’s only fair they get the same care when the tables are turned,” she said.
“Doctors are human. The pressures of the job are immense and we know there are higher rates of mental health issues and suicide among health practitioners. It makes it vital for us to ensure that everyone – including health practitioners – is able to access care when they need it.”