Protection for impaired doctors who seek treatment a step closer

Medical politics

By Tessa Hoffman

6 Jul 2017

There are hopes the mandatory requirement for doctors to report an impaired peer they are treating may be scrapped, after Health Minister Greg Hunt signalled support for the idea.

The Health Practitioner Regulation National Law makes it mandatory for doctors to report a peer they reasonably believe has an impairment that places the public at risk of substantial harm.

In WA, doctors are exempt if they formed the view while treating a peer, and there have been reports of doctors travelling there from interstate to get help without fear of damaging their careers.

Calls to introduce ‘WA-style’ exemption in all jurisdictions have intensified following a spate of doctors’ suicides, with proponents arguing those needing help are not getting it for fear of being hauled in front of the health regulator.

At last month’s AMA national conference delegates unanimously called on the federal government to amend the law, and AMA president Michael Gannon relayed this message to Health Minister Greg Hunt.

An AMA spokesperson said Minister Hunt wrote back indicating he would strongly advocate to remove barriers that prevent doctors from seeking help, by working with the states and territories to amend the mandatory reporting provision.

In a statement to the limbic, Minister Hunt said he will work with the states to establish “a common national standard to protect the mental health of doctors, while at the same time ensuring protection of patients”.

“The current well intentioned laws appear to create a disincentive for doctors to seek medical help in the early stages of mental health conditions,” he said.

Change may come sooner in NSW, a state which has the capacity to independently amend the law and where three doctors have taken their own lives in the past 18 months

In the wake of those deaths, in February AMA NSW president Professor Brad Frankum wrote an open letter stating it was “clear to me that provisions such as mandatory reporting are stopping doctors and students from accessing care, or are making them fearful of the consequences if they do require support.”

“We have to change this because it is not making our doctors or our patients safer.”

MDA National medicolegal manager Dr Sara Bird said due to its co-regulatory model, NSW has the capacity to introduce the exemption.

She said the medical defence organisation, along with Avant and AMA NSW, is lobbying the NSW Government to make this happen.

Ideally the exemption should be made nationally via amendment to the National Law, she said.

Currently, only WA and Queensland have it in place, but the sunshine state’s version does not introduce any significant change to the reporting requirements, she said.

“MDA National is concerned that some doctors are avoiding medical care out of fear regarding the mandatory reporting obligations,” Dr Bird said.

“We believe the current legislative arrangements are not protecting doctors and, equally importantly, they are failing to protect the public.

“We’d like it nationally consistent so it’s genuinely a national scheme.”

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