New, nationally consistent laws will ensure doctors are no longer obliged to report colleagues under their care to AHPRA over mental health issues.
In a statement following last week’s meeting of the COAG Health Council, Federal, State and Territory Health Ministers agreed unanimously to “strengthen the law to remove barriers for registered health professionals to seek appropriate treatment for impairments including mental health”.
They agreed to a nationally consistent approach with “exemptions from the reporting of notifiable conduct by treating practitioners”, with new legislation that will have to be passed by the various State and Territory legislative bodies. Western Australia already has such laws, which it says it will retain as is.
Currently, doctors in all states other than Western Australia are legally obliged to report the mental health impairments of any registered health professional under their care to AHPRA or the Medical Board of Australia. In some cases, this can lead to a suspension of a doctor’s registration and right to practise. The issue of mandatory reporting has been a point of simmering tension in the medical community following a tragic spate of doctor suicides. The AMA, the RACGP and other representative bodies have argued that under the current regime, doctors battling with depression or other mental health issues often avoid seeking help for fear of being reported to AHPRA and losing their registration.
Under the new approach, doctors would still be under the obligation to report “past, present and the risk of future sexual misconduct”, as well as “current and the risk of future instances of intoxication at work and practices outside of accepted standards”.
The statement from the COAG Health Council meeting has been met with cautious approval from doctors’ organisations. AMA President Dr Michael Gannon said the Ministers had acknowledged the AMA’s concerns and that he was confident better laws could be crafted and implemented.
“It is clear that all the Health Ministers are committed to removing barriers from doctors seeking help from other doctors about their mental health or stress-related conditions,” he said.
But he took issue with some of the wording in the COAG statement, in particular with regard to the “future misconduct” of health professionals.
“It is unreasonable and unworkable to expect treating doctors to predict the future behaviour of any patients, including their colleagues,” he noted.
The RACGP’s response was a little more measured. The GP body described the COAG statement as a step in the right direction, but cautioned that it left “significant room for doubt and confusion”.
RACGP President Dr Bastien Seidel said the proposed changes were “short on detail” and that the retention of requirements for reporting a health professional practising “at a lower standard” left doubt for doctors seeking healthcare.
“Much of the conduct identified as grounds for mandatory reporting is subjective, open to interpretation by both the health professional and their treating practitioner,” he said.
“If there is room for doubt on what should or shouldn’t be reported, the fundamental issue of there being barriers to healthcare remains,” he added.
AMSA, the body representing Australia’s 17,000 medical students, applauded the rethink on mandatory reporting.
“It sends a strong message about the culture of medicine, that we encourage people to talk about their mental health, to seek help early, and that doctors who find themselves on the other side as patients deserve the same access to care as everyone else,” the body said in a statement.
But it also was worried about the wording around future misconduct.
“Predicting future behaviour is a complicated area, and leaving this as grounds to affect a doctor’s registration and career is troubling. In revision of the reporting procedures, we hope that it is remembered that the aim is to help doctors, not punish them.”