The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has warned that health impairment notifications are negatively impacting GPs and called on governments across Australia to scrap mandatory notification laws.
It follows a new study investigating the impact of Australia’s regulatory processes on doctors whose health allegedly affects their ability to practise. The RACGP has long called for all state and territory governments to follow the lead of Western Australia and remove mandatory notification laws, which require doctors to report a fellow GP if they have a “reasonable belief” that their health condition puts the public at risk.
Earlier this year, findings from a separate study found that 16 practitioners who received notifications from 2018–2021 took their own lives.
RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins said the research backs up what GPs have been saying for years.
“Enough is enough, mandatory reporting laws must go. These notifications place a tremendous strain on GPs, and we know mandatory reporting laws discourage GPs from seeking the healthcare they need,” she said.
“The evidence is already in, and GPs deserve better. Last year, a Senate committee report recommended that the Ministerial Council agree to remove current mandatory reporting requirements and align the approach with the Western Australian model.
“GPs are people too, and not immune from health concerns, including mental health issues. Now more than ever, after several very stressful years, it’s vital that GPs take care of themselves and seek help when they need it free of the fear of being reported. My message to all GPs if that if you have a health concern – please reach out and book a consult. The threshold for reporting a concern has been raised and is now reached when there is a ‘substantial risk of harm’ to the public’. The bottom line is that if you need to access healthcare, do so right away.”
GP and lead author Dr Owen Bradfield said the study highlights why the laws discourage GPs from seeking healthcare.
“My research shows that fear of mandatory reporting was a significant barrier for unwell doctors accessing healthcare, and this seemed to result in worse health outcomes for those doctors,” he said.
“That is not good for those doctors or for the patients they serve.”
The Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) has introduced a “Health Management Team” to support unwell practitioners. Dr Bradfield acknowledges this “important work” but said that notifications were still negatively impacting many GPs across Australia.
“Notifications can be incredibly distressing for doctors, and it is crucial that Ahpra continues to listen to doctors – and those representing them – about their experiences and ways that systems and processes can continue to improve,’ he said.
Dr Bradfield also stressed that GPs have a vital role to play in looking out for each other.
“GPs play a critical role in managing the health and wellbeing of their doctor-patients, including identifying early warning signs of burnout, depression, and anxiety,” he said.
As reported recently, first-hand remarks quoted in the research, which is based on in-depth interviews with 21 doctors, highlight the personal impact of the notifications.
“I received the notification and … everything came crashing down,” one participant told researchers.
“When doctors receive a notification, they are in crisis – absolute distress. The risks are very high,” another said.
“The regulator cherry-picked the most stigmatising aspects of my entire life story and then included them in a report about me that was communicated to my employers. This has left my perpetually re-traumatised,” another said.