Why the Queensland mandatory reporting laws must be changed

Bruce Willett

5/12/2018 1:33:56 PM

RACGP Queensland Chair Dr Bruce Willett writes about the need for doctors to safely seek the help they need.

RACGP Queensland Chair Dr Bruce Willett is calling for urgent change.
RACGP Queensland Chair Dr Bruce Willett is calling for urgent change.

Why have Queensland’s top medical bodies come out against proposed amendments to the state’s mandatory reporting laws?
The answer is simple. As they stand, the laws make it harder for doctors with mental health and other issues to seek the help they need, due to fear their treating doctor will have to report them as a risk to patients.
That will likely lead to doctors being unable to get the help they need – which could have terrible consequences.
The proposed amendments to the law couldn’t come at a worse time, with mental distress and attempted suicides among doctors at the highest rates of all the professions.
Doctors work in a high-pressure environment, with a culture of feeling like we should all be perfect. That means that we often don’t seek help when we should.
We have lost too many of our colleagues to mental illness in recent years. We as doctors need to make a stand to ensure we do not lose anyone else unnecessarily.
Putting barriers between life-giving help and doctors in need is exactly the wrong approach.
That’s why Queensland’s peak medical professional groups, including the RACGP, Australian Medical Association (AMA), Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine (ACRRM), Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP), have united to condemn the law as it stands.
Professor Brett Emmerson, the Queensland Branch Chair of RANZCP, has said many doctors know a colleague who has had mental health problems and has been afraid to seek help. 
‘We must make it easier and more acceptable for health professionals to see a GP or psychiatrist and get help for their own condition, without fear of reprisal, as doctors in Western Australia [WA] can,’ he said. 
We already know that if treating clinicians have a reasonable expectation that harm is being done to patients, they will report.
But the RACGP’s concern with this legislation is that it puts too much pressure on treating clinicians to decide what issues are significant.
If the law passes, treating clinicians may be forced to report things that perhaps do not need to be reported, and that will discourage medical practitioners from seeking vital help.
Discouraging doctors from seeking help is a bad outcome – not only for the doctor, but also for their patients.
Doctors are human beings and have a right and expectation to receive treatment like any other profession, without fear of prejudice.
No other profession is subject to these laws, not even those who have public safety in their hands.
A doctor is not required to report a police officer, a pilot or a bus driver they are treating. Why? Because it has been recognised that it is important for these professions to feel confident talking to their doctor about their health concerns.
Why should it be any different for doctors? Doctors spend their lives caring for others. Who is caring for us?
I believe our legislators have the best intentions, but they have not considered the unintended consequences of their actions and the flow-on effects the law will have.
We can already see this in the stories of medical professionals from all around the country flying to WA to access help. I have heard many such stories.
Why WA? Because that state passed its own mandatory reporting laws that strike a better balance between doctor wellbeing and patient safety. They exempt a treating practitioner from having to report doctors under their care.
Since WA passed its laws in 2010, there has been no evidence of an increase in adverse events linked to mandatory reporting, and the rates of reports regarding practitioner medical conditions or impairments are within the range of other states and territories. This model works, and it needs to be applied at a national level.
Earlier today, RACGP Queensland Deputy Chair Dr Michael Clements and Council Member Dr Rod Willett stated the college’s case to a committee reviewing the proposed changes to the law.
They told the committee these mandatory reporting laws will not achieve their stated purpose of removing barriers for doctors seeking help.
We need to get this right, and we may not get another chance soon.
If passed, this legislation will become the basis for all other state laws on mandatory reporting (except WA).
We cannot settle for the changes being proposed in the bill. We need meaningful change. We need the WA model to be adopted nationally.
We can only hope our concerns are taken as seriously as they deserve to be.

doctor health legislation mandatory reporting mental health mental illness RACGP Queensland

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