Mandatory reporting of health professionals: has COAG delivered on its promise?

On the one hand patients must be certain that health practitioners are fit to practice in a competent and ethical manner, but on the other hand practitioners should be able to seek treatment without fear of being reported, penalised or losing their jobs. Has the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) found the right balance?

The National Law contains mandatory reporting obligations for registered health practitioners, employers and education providers to protect patients. However, if you’re for example a midwife, psychologist, pharmacist, doctor or student with a mental health condition, it can be a challenging decision to seek help. Many don’t out of fear that the treating practitioner may believe they have to notify authorities.

Concerns have been raised that practitioners and students don’t seek or delay treatment – and when they seek care, there may be a reluctance to be open and honest with the treating practitioner, leading to suboptimal treatment eventually putting the health and safety of the practitioner and the public at risk.

For years the AMA, RACGP and other professional bodies have argued that the regulation needs to change to ensure health practitioners can, just like others, seek help.

In October 2018 an Amendment Bill was introduced to the Queensland Parliament, which if passed will automatically be applicable to most other States and Territories. The Bill introduces a higher threshold for mandatory reporting in an attempt to give registered health practitioners greater confidence to seek treatment for health issues.

Western Australia exempts treating practitioners from mandatory reporting for all forms of notifiable conduct if their patient is a registered health practitioner. The WA model or similar has always been the preferred option of health providers. There is no evidence to suggest patient safety in WA is worse.

In addition to mandatory reporting requirements, practitioners have ethical and professional obligations to report other practitioners who may pose a risk to the public.

Brief history

On 13 April 2018, after the COAG Health Council meeting in Sydney, the federal, state and territory Health Ministers, issued a press release stating that the law regarding mandatory reporting of health professionals would be strengthened ‘to remove barriers for registered health professionals to seek appropriate treatment for impairments including mental health.’

The ministers further agreed to a nationally consistent approach to mandatory reporting which would propose exemptions from the reporting of notifiable conduct by treating practitioners, noting Western Australia’s current arrangements would be retained.

Explicitly mentioned in the COAG press release was the fact that in WA health practitioners in a treating relationship based on the reasonable belief can make a voluntary notification as part of their ethical obligations in relation to any type of misconduct.

Health Ministers agreed that the reforms should ensure that registered health practitioners can seek help when needed, but must also protect the public from harm. On 12 October 2018, COAG Health Council approved the reforms to mandatory reporting by treating practitioners in the Amendment Bill. The WA model was not adopted.

The Council concluded that the amendments would achieve the right balance between encouraging practitioners with an impairment to feel confident that they can seek treatment, while protecting the public from harm by requiring treating practitioners to make mandatory reports about other registered health practitioners that pose a substantial risk of harm to the public or are engaging in sexual misconduct in connection with the practice of their profession.

What’s good?

A treating practitioner will only be required to make a mandatory report if their practitioner-patient’s conduct involving impairment, intoxication or departure from professional standards meets a higher threshold of risk of placing the public at substantial risk of harm (this threshold does not apply to mandatory reporting of sexual misconduct).

Only serious impairments that are not being appropriately managed through treatment or mitigation strategies need to be reported if the safety of patients would be at risk.

The amendments also include guidance factors; in considering whether the public is at substantial risk of harm, a treating practitioner may consider the following matters relating to an impairment of the health practitioner or student:

  • the nature, extent and severity of the impairment;
  • the extent to which the health practitioner or student is taking, or is willing to take, steps to manage the impairment;
  • the extent to which the impairment can be managed with appropriate treatment;
  • any other matter the treating practitioner considers is relevant to the risk of harm the impairment poses to the public.

According to the explanatory note a treating practitioner may make an overall assessment about a practitioner-patient’s conduct relating to impairment, intoxication or departure from professional standards in deciding whether a mandatory report should be made. All three types of conduct are measured against the same threshold for reporting.

If an impairment issue is connected to, or a significant cause of, intoxication or departure from professional standards, a treating practitioner is able to take into account the effectiveness of treatment or engagement in treatment of an impairment by the practitioner-patient in deciding whether there is likely to be an ongoing risk of harm to the public.

“Also, in cases where an impairment may be impacting on, or causing, instances of intoxication at work or departure from professional standards, a treating practitioner may consider the guidance factors related to the impairment first, such as the extent to which treatment is likely to be successful and the practitioner-patient’s engagement with treatment. If the treating practitioner is satisfied the impairment issue is being managed appropriately and does not reach the threshold of ‘substantial risk of harm’, the treating practitioner would not be required to make a mandatory report for the impairment.

“The treating practitioner could then consider, in light of the impairment issue being managed, whether future instances of intoxication at work or departure from professional standards are likely to recur. If, given appropriate management of the impairment, they are not likely to recur, the mandatory reporting threshold of ‘substantial risk of harm’ would not be met. In this way, the current provisions provide adequate flexibility for a holistic assessment of risk.

“It would be possible for a practitioner to have a substance abuse or dependence disorder, but it may be something that only affects their personal life or only occurs while they are away from their workplace. This type of conduct should be considered as an ‘impairment’ for which it is appropriate to apply the guidance factors. However, the risks associated with a practitioner being intoxicated at work are considered significant, so that if a treating practitioner becomes aware that a person is practising while intoxicated, they should be subject to mandatory reporting if their conduct reaches the threshold.

Source: Health Practitioner Regulation National Law and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 — Explanatory Note.

The explanatory note further states that the guidance factors included in the legislation send a clear signal to practitioners and students that, provided they are engaged in treatment and willing to take steps to address their impairment, a treating practitioner is not required to make a mandatory report, unless the safety of patients would be at risk.

Seeking treatment may indeed become easier as the explanatory note of bill explicitly states that the test of ‘substantial risk of harm’ is not intended to require reporting of low-level or trivial types of harm or mere inconvenience. Only serious impairments which are not being appropriately treated are intended to require reporting. This means that harm would need to be ‘material’ to reach the threshold of ‘substantial risk of harm’.

What’s not so good?

Some have argued that although the wording ‘substantial risk of harm’ may have increased the risk threshold, the harm threshold is low, and it appears that all levels of harm, including trivial harm and inconvenience, need to be reported even though the explanatory note states the opposite.

The explanation may be reassuring but the bill itself raises questions. The wording has the potential to create confusion around the interpretation of the legislation and, worse, may prevent health practitioners from seeking help or being open and honest with their treating practitioner.

Doctors and other health workers have the highest suicide rate in Australia’s white-collar workforce. Legislation is of course not the cause of mental illness and suicide and we need to continue to look at other factors, including our professional cultures and how we communicate and treat each other. This is a shared responsibility of the profession and policy makers.

It remains vital that health practitioners can seek help without fear of repercussion no matter where they live and work. The Health Practitioner Regulation National Law and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 is a welcome step in the right direction, but there is room for improvement if the COAG Health Council wants to deliver on its promise to remove barriers for registered health professionals to seek appropriate treatment for impairments including mental health.

6 new social media road rules

I joined Twitter back in 2011. In those days, the social media platform felt like taking a leisurely stroll around the old village, stopping along the way to have a friendly chat with locals.

We had Sunday night Twitter chats, discussing anything to do with social media and healthcare in Australia and New Zealand. There were patients, doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and others happily chatting with each other, sharing information and offering support, following professional codes of conduct and rules of courtesy.

It was an inspiring place, there at the Twitter village square.

In recent years, however, social media has become a ubiquitous part of the mainstream. As a result of the rapid growth of various platforms and the number of users and networks, it now feels like driving at high speed on a five-lane freeway.

I still occasionally see the locals from the village in their fast cars, but there’s no time to chat. I usually get distracted by the billboards or the other drivers, overtaking, blowing the horn and, not seldom, making angry gestures.

Interestingly, we all seem to be copying each other’s behaviors on the social media highways. And, somehow, I often end up in the lane for doctors. There is also a lane for patients, pharmacists, midwives and so on.

Although the doctors in my lane don’t always see eye to eye, we often agree on things like the abominable road conditions or the dangers of a fast-approaching storm. And, not infrequently, we get frustrated about the drivers in the other lanes, especially when they cross the double white unbroken dividing line or, heaven forbid, end up in our lane.

I miss the village square. The diversity of people and ideas was refreshing. There was more time, more tolerance, more curiosity and more kindness. It is not surprising that social media can be bad for our mental health.

On the other hand, social media still has a lot to offer. There are many amazing, inspiring and funny people out there.

I was asked to write about the do’s and don’ts of social media, but I’m not the highway patrol. I have instead listed six simple things to remind myself of what I should already know when I’m participating in the traffic on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or any other social media network.

(I have admittedly, had a look at the website of the Royal Automobile Club of Queensland for inspiration)

Here are six new social media road rules:

  1. Remain calm and relaxed
  2. Drive defensively and make allowances for errors by others
  3. Adopt a ‘share the road’ rather than ‘me first’ approach to driving
  4. Use the horn sparingly and only as a warning device
  5. Leave unpleasant encounters or delays in the past and concentrate on the rest of the trip
  6. Don’t try to police other road users’ behaviours

Edwin can often be found driving in the slow lane on Twitter at @EdwinKruysThis post was originally published on NewsGP. Road rules advice originally by RACQ.

Health of the Nation: good and bad news according to Australia’s GPs 

Australia’s GPs believe that mental health is the number one emerging health concern, often related to co-existing chronic health conditions – but more is needed to keep Australians well.

This is one of the conclusions presented in the benchmark report General Practice: Health of the Nation 2017 which gives a unique overview of the general practice sector.

The report is based on various sources, including research commissioned by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and the MABEL (Medicine in Australia: Balancing Employment and Life) Survey.

Some of the key messages from the report:

  1. Mental health is today’s biggest health problem and will continue to be an issue in the future
  2. The GP is the most accessible health professional and should be utilised to keep Australia well
  3. Patient out-of-pocket expenses in general practice are increasing and present a barrier to patients accessing the required care

The bad news

GPs report that psychological issues such as depression, mood disorders and anxiety are the most common health issues they manage. Mental health was flagged by RACGP members as the health issue causing most concern for the future, followed by the often related problems of obesity and diabetes.

GPs believe that mental health and obesity are two key health policy issues the Federal Government should prioritise for action.

From the benchmark report: “This is a clear warning of both the current frequency and future potential impact of psychological ailments on individuals, the community and the broader health sector. It is also a stark reminder that the personal and financial health costs associated with obesity and diabetes are expected to escalate.”

However, the number one health policy issue flagged by GPs is the problem of the low patient Medicare rebates. GPs have indicated this requires immediate Federal Government action to make sure that access to high quality healthcare is maintained.

As the cost of providing high-quality health services and running general practices continues to rise, GPs are finding it more difficult to bulk bill patients. Between 2013-14 and 2016-17 the growth of the bilk billing rate has slowed down.

Patient out-of-pocket contributions continue to increase each year as Medicare rebates fall further behind the real cost of providing general practice services.

The good news

Most Australians can see their GP when they need to. Nearly all patients (99.3%) report that they are able to see a GP when they need to and most people are able to get an appointment for urgent medical care within four hours.

Australians access GPs more than any other part of the health system. They report that they visit their GP more than they receive prescriptions, have pathology or imaging tests, and see non-GP specialists.

Eighty-three per cent of patients report that they visit their GP multiple times a year, including 11% who report seeing their GP 12 times or more. The availability of GP services has further increased with extended opening hours.

GPs coordinate care within multidisciplinary teams and Australians report positive experiences with their GP.

More time with patients

The RACGP is arguing for Medicare changes that will incentivise doctors to spend more time with patients – by increasing the patient rebate for longer consultations.

RACGP President Dr Bastian Seidel said: “We believe when GPs are spending more time with their patients, that leads to less prescribing, less pathology, less referrals, enhanced continuity of care, and that would, of course, mean less hospital presentations as well.”

General practice accounts for less than 9% of total government recurrent expenditure. The RACGP, AMA and other groups believe this is inappropriate as more health benefits for Australians can be gained by investing in primary care.

 

Download the report here.

 

Online therapy? It works.

Mental health care is not accessible to everyone. It’s a fact that less than fifty percent of people who need treatment actually get it. But access to an internet connection is available to most people. So it makes sense to offer more health services online.

Although the opinions are divided about Dr Google, health experts now agree on one thing: internet therapy for many mental health problems works.

5 benefits

E-mental health is a broad term used for mental health services delivered via internet programs, telehealth, mobile phone applications and websites. There are five benefits:

  1. It can be accessed anytime and anywhere
  2. There are no or low costs to patients
  3. It fills service gaps
  4. It reduces wait lists
  5. It’s cost-effective to the health system.

Some patient groups will benefit less from online therapy, such as people with complex or severe mental illness, personality disorders, substance dependence, or people who have a higher risk of self-harm or suicide and need urgent clinical management.

Who is it for?

E-mental health probably works best for people at risk of illness or people with mild to moderate symptoms. It is used in many ways including first-line treatment and relapse prevention. Evidence shows that it can be as effective as face-to-face therapy. Using the services in combination with regular visits to a doctor is ideal.

If you want to know what e-mental health services are available and how reliable they are, click here (free registration). The site uses a smiley system to show how much evidence there is that a service works.

More information and free e-mental health training for health professionals can be found here. The RACGP has published a handy e-mental guide for GPs.

Have a look at the video as well. Before you use any of the online services it is recommended to check the terms and conditions so you know what happens with the personal information you provide.

Sources:

Let’s stay out of where they are from and why they’re here

A long time ago I did a locum stint in an asylum seekers centre in The Netherlands.

What struck me was the vast amount of physical and mental illnesses like depression, malnourishment, and neglected chronic and infectious diseases, together with uncertainty, fear, cultural differences and challenging language barriers.

It all came back to me when I saw the people on board of the small, fragile vessel that earlier this year sailed into the Geraldton harbour.

Asylum seeker boat
When the boat sailed into the Geraldton harbour, it didn’t feel like the ‘unprecedented breach of border security’ we heard about in the media. Whatever the reason for their journey, these men, women and children should be looked after properly while they are in Australia.

The sad reality is that many asylum seekers, including children, spend many years in immigration detention facilities. This creates more (mental) health problems. AMA president Steve Hambleton said at the National Press Conference this week:

(…) let’s stay out of where they are from and why they’re here and all the other stuff. Once we are in control or once we take responsibility for people, we should be providing them with first-rate health care.

Whatever the reason for their dangerous journey, let’s hope these men, women and children will eventually find a place where they can live a safe, healthy and peaceful life.

In the meantime, while they are here, we have to take care of them. We are responsible for their health and well-being, including appropriate access to quality healthcare.