Medical Staff Mental Illness: Getting Help With No Fear

An expert advisory committee will examine how regulatory bodies can seek to protect patient safety without discouraging health practitioners from taking steps to ensure they are mentally fit to practice.

At its latest meeting, the Council of Australian Governments Health Council discussed moves by several states to reconsider the mandatory nature of the notifications process that covers practitioners who may have an impairment.

Medical Staff Mental Illness: Getting Help With No Fear

Michael Gannon

The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency requires that it be notified if a practitioner has a mental impairment that “detrimentally affects or is likely to detrimentally affect the person’s capacity to practise the profession”.

The threshold for notification, by the doctor or a third party, is the public being at risk of substantial harm, and health issues — including drug and alcohol problems — are likelier to lead to restrictions on practice. However, there is a perception that lesser cases will be reported and kept on file.

Several tragic and high-profile suicides of health practitioners have prompted a debate about the risk of people with mental illness not being diagnosed or seeking treatment out of fear their career will suffer.

Data released to The Australian from the National Coronial Information System revealed 153 suicides among health professionals between January 1, 2011, and December 31, 2014. Within the profession that represented a suicide rate of 0.03 per cent: lower than for some occupations but the highest among white-collar workers.

Going into the council meeting, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt expects jurisdictions to relax the mandatory reporting requirement and “remove the perverse disincentive to seeking treatment”.

“It’s a very high-stress job, particularly for young doctors,” Hunt says. “That’s a period where all the advice from all of the professionals is that they’re particularly vulnerable because of their age and workplace pressure, and then you have on top of that the perceived threat to their professional development if they were to report mental health issues.”

Western Australia does not compel treating doctors to notify authorities, instead leaving decisions about capacity to work to patients and their doctors.

This article was originally published by The Australian.

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