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Current mandatory reporting laws for GPs 'need overhaul'

22 September, 2014

Current laws mandatory reporting laws for doctors pose a risk to the public because they deter doctors from seeking medical consultations when they most need it, according to a recent report by medico-legal experts.

The report specified an exemption to mandatory reporting in Western Australian legislation provides a model for amending equivalent laws in other jurisdictions, which could pave the way for nationally consistent legislation.

"Doctors who are unwell need to feel they can attend their treating doctor without the stumbling block of mandatory reporting," says University of Sydney psychiatrist, Associate Professor Louise Nash, a co-author of the report.

"Current mandatory reporting requirements may be a deterrent for some doctors to seek medical care.

"However, without the mandatory reporting requirement, an ethical obligation remains to report a doctor who is considered a risk to public safety."

Barriers experienced

The authors point to findings from a recent national survey of doctors as an indicator of the barriers doctors experience in seeking treatment for their own mental health issues.

According to the 2013 Beyond Blue survey of more than 12,000 doctors, the leading barriers to seeking help were:

  • lack of confidentiality or privacy (reported by 52 per cent)
  • embarrassment (37 per cent)
  • impact on registration and right to practice (34 per cent)
  • preference to rely on self or not seek help (30 per cent)
  • lack of time (29 per cent)
  • concerns about career development or progress (27 per cent)

Doctors in Australia have always had an ethical duty to report doctors whose practice puts patient at risk of harm; however the passing of state and territory laws between 2008-10 made mandatory reporting a legal requirement. These laws currently apply to 14 health practitioner groups, including medical practitioners.

"Mandatory reporting laws were introduced as a response to perceived failures in medical self-regulation," says Nick Goiran, a Western Australian MLC and co-author of the report.

"They were intended to protect the public from dangerous or poorly performing medical practitioners, following a string of notorious cases in the mid-2000s.

"Embedded in these laws is the legal obligation for registered health professionals to report 'notifiable conduct' to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency if, in the course of their practice they form a reasonable belief that another health practitioner has behaved in a way that constitutes notifiable conduct."

Western Australian law legislation does not oblige health practitioners to report what they consider as notifiable conduct or impairment when providing healthcare to another health practitioner.

An increased risk to the public

In comparison to Western Australia, the authors suggest that mandatory reporting may actually increase risks to the public rather than decrease it because it can deter doctors from seeking help.

The call to amend and harmonise mandatory reporting laws also has the backing of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and a 2011 Senate Committee inquiry.

The report was published in the Journal of Law and Medicine.

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