State and territory governments have agreed to remove a law criticised for discouraging medical students and doctors from getting help for mental illness, after the suicide of several young doctors.
At the moment, the law forces health practitioners, teachers, and professors to report a student or doctor to the medical board who has told them they have a mental illness if they’re a risk to patients.
If they’re reported, they could be stopped from practicing as a doctor in the future.
Health professionals say the law is ambiguous and discourages students and doctors from getting treated for mental illness.
At a meeting, all state and territory Health Ministers agreed to changing this part of the law.
“Ministers agreed unanimously to take steps to protect patients and strengthen the law to remove barriers for registered health professionals to seek appropriate treatment for impairments including mental health,” a statement released from the meeting said.
“Ministers agreed to a nationally consistent approach to mandatory reporting which will be drafted and proposes exemptions from the reporting of notifiable conduct by treating practitioners.”
WA is the only state in the country where this law doesn’t exist and health professionals have been known to travel there to get mental health help so they won’t be at risk of being reported.
“[The governments are] moving towards a model where it’ll be possible for doctors and medical students to go and get treatment for medical conditions for mental health issues without putting their future career at risk,” Alex Farrell from the Australian Medical Students Association told Hack.
The change agreed to by the governments leaves it up to health professionals to decide whether it’s necessary to report a medical student or doctor as opposed to making it compulsory every time.
This is state law, so It’s now up to each state and territory government to legislate these changes to make them official.
What’s led to this?
Health professionals have been calling for these changes saying the law currently stops doctors and medical students from seeking help for their mental illness because they’re worried about losing their jobs.
The calls were prompted after a cluster of suicides of young doctors and medical students over the past two years.
“Mental health among medical students and junior doctors is a huge concern, it’s a career and teaching environment that can be intense and stressful,” Alex said.
Studies have also shown, medical students and young doctors have a much higher rate of mental illness than the rest of the country.
According to most governments, this law was in place to ensure patients are protected and won’t be treated by a doctor whose mental health impinges on their work.
Although the medical board has said there’s a high bar for what illnesses must be reported, health professionals have said the legislation is ambiguous so even people with minor mental health problems are at risk of being reported.
Health professionals still have concerns
While the governments agreed to changing the mental health part of the law, medical groups are warning there are still some concerning parts to the legislation which won’t be changed.
If health practitioners believe a medical student or young doctor is at risk in the future of sexual misconduct or substance abuse, they must be reported.
“The legislation will specifically include a requirement to report past, present and the risk of future sexual misconduct and a requirement to report current and the risk of future instances of intoxication at work and practice outside of accepted standards,” the ministers said in a statement.
The Australian Medical Students Association said it’s unreasonable to expect health professionals to be able to predict the future and report their colleagues because of this.
“We’re looking forward to seeing the legislation develop and be involved in the process of making sure this is a system that protects doctors and their mental health rather than punishing them.”