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13 Nov 2017

State and Territory Health Ministers met with their Federal counterpart in Canberra this month for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Health Council meeting, where discussion around mandatory reporting was high on the agenda.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt reported after the meeting that progress had been made towards providing national legislative protection for doctors seeking treatment for their own mental health and stress-related conditions.

“There will be better protection for doctors and medical professionals who face mental health challenges,” Mr Hunt said during a media conference.

“At the moment, many of them feel that there are barriers to seeking mental health treatment because of mandatory reporting.

“We have agreed to work together to rapidly, very rapidly, conclude an approach to a new national health law with regard to mental treatment so as doctors can seek the treatment they need when they need it, in a way that will best protect them, whilst also providing absolute protections for the public.”

When pressed for more details, the Minister said the Government would immediately begin the process of working with the Chief Medical and Health Officers of the States, and with the AMA and other health groups.

“We’re looking to finalise this before the end of the year, and what that would mean is that there would be a standard, which still has to have final agreement between States and Territories and the Commonwealth,” he said.

“But we are looking at ensuring that health workers can seek treatment for mental health in the same way that everybody else can, without fear of being reported for ordinary conditions in relation to mental health.

“We have to move to a safety-based and public safety-based format, because if we don’t do that, there’s the perverse outcome that the medical professionals, at the very time they may need and want early help, will resist that early help.”

Directly before the COAG meeting, AMA President Dr Michael Gannon stressed to the Minister – and to the States and Territories – that the current Western Australian model of mandatory reporting provisions should be adopted across all jurisdictions.

“It is now up to Ministers to deliver on behalf of patients, doctors, and the other regulated professions,” Dr Gannon said.

“If they only tinker at the edges – or attempt to reword the existing model – they will only reinforce the existing barriers that are blocking doctors from seeking support.

“We urge Ministers to avoid an alternative proposal, which is based on the current Queensland model. It does not work.

“The principle underpinning the WA model – an exemption from reporting for impairment – has been proven to work.

“The WA model does not pose a risk to patients. There is evidence that it does help doctors.

“Doctors and other health workers are at greater risk of mental illness and stress-related problems, yet the current laws inhibit many from seeking treatment for a mental health condition because they fear for their medical registration.

“The mandatory reporting laws have a twofold effect – some people will not seek help at all, and those who do may not divulge all the necessary information to receive appropriate care.

“The AMA is extremely concerned that we have a situation now where doctors may be avoiding necessary health care, putting both themselves and their patients at risk.”

Dr Gannon said the entire AMA is unequivocal in its support for the WA model, which addresses the issues stopping doctors from seeking treatment they need.

That model should be adopted nationally, he said.

“It has given doctors the confidence to seek the help they need and there is no evidence that it has diminished patient safety in any way,” Dr Gannon said.

Other issues discussed at the Health COAG include:  a new national approach to protect patients from medical procedures in relation to cosmetic surgery; better protection for nursing staff in rural and remote areas (known as Gayle’s Law in response to the 2016 murder of Outback nurse Gayle Woodford when attending a call on the APY lands); and progress towards a quadrivalent vaccine for ACW and Y with meningococcal.

“As well, we are on the cusp of better protections for our seniors and our young children in relation to new influenza vaccines coming forward – vaccines which have not been previously available, which the Commonwealth has expedited,” Mr Hunt said.

“And I am confident that both the new meningococcal and the new flu vaccines will be available for the coming seasons.

“Apart from that, the other very significant breakthrough was on the agreement of principles for a new national health reform agreement from 2020 to 2025, and those principles are about prevention, wellbeing and a focus on outcomes, and what that means is that there will be more support and better support for keeping people out of hospital, rather just supporting and paying for people to be admitted to hospital.

“If we can keep Australians out of hospital, it’s better for their health, it’s better for the health system, and Australians will be the beneficiaries of that.” 

CHRIS JOHNSON


Published: 13 Nov 2017