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Doctors’ health care: equal access for all on its way

29 Apr 2014

Doctors and medical students nationwide will have equal access to dedicated health programs and services under arrangements announced by the Medical Board of Australia.

Just six months after a beyondblue report found that doctors and medical students were far more likely than the general community to be suffering significant psychological distress – with up to one in five admitting they had had suicidal thoughts in the previous 12 months – the Medical Board has unveiled plans to establish an arm’s length national organisation to enter into contracts with services in each State and Territory to deliver external health programs.

In a move welcomed by the AMA, the Medical Board has decided against establishing a single national provider and has instead opted to funnel funds to locally-based services through a national network arrangement.

The decision came little more than 12 months after the Medical Board announced its intention to use existing resources to fund a nationally equitable, external health program for doctors.

It was informed by the findings of a report commissioned by the Australian Health Practitioners’ Regulation Agency from law firm DLA Piper on possible governance arrangements for external doctors’ health programs.

The report found that although establishing a single national provider would be cheaper and simpler, the fact that each jurisdiction already had in place organisations and services with substantial engagement with the medical profession meant the best approach was to support and coordinate such programs within a national framework.

The Board said its initiative complemented the regulatory role performed by it and the Australian Health Practitioners’ Regulation Agency to “manage practitioners with impairment that may place the public at risk”.

Medical Board Chair Dr Joanna Flynn said the decision to fund nationally-consistent health services for doctors and medical students was “a really important” step taken by her organisation, and was significant for the medical profession.

“Doctors are notorious for not seeking help when they need it, particularly when they feel vulnerable,” Dr Flynn said. “There is good evidence to show that doctors' health programs can help to address these problems by raising awareness of the issues, education, and advocacy for healthier doctors and medical students.”

The Victorian Doctors’ Health Program (VDHP) was among the organisations whose future was uncertain before the Medical Board’s decision to fund existing services as part of a new, nationally-consistent network.
AMA Victoria said each year around 200 doctors use VDHP services for the first time, while many existing clients rely on it for ongoing support.

The VDHP was previously funded completely by the now-defunct Medical Practitioners Board of Victoria, and its continued funding was under a cloud until the Medical Board’s announcement.

AMA Victoria President Dr Stephen Parnis said the VDHP worked “extremely well in Victoria, and we are pleased that there will be ongoing funding for this program. Implementing these services at a national level will beneficial to all doctors throughout Australia”. 

Dr Flynn said the Board would work with “existing programs, the AMA, beyondblue and other key stakeholders as we develop the governance arrangements and implementation plans”.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 29 Apr 2014