Impending changes to the Medical Board’s code of good conduct for doctors threaten doctors’ rights to free speech and are heavy handed on issues of discrimination, bullying and cultural safety, a medical indemnity group warns.
Insurer Avant has added its voice to a chorus of professional groups concerned the document encroaches on doctors’ independence and clinical practice.
The AMA has already sounded the alarm over the the draft update of the Good Medical Practice: a code of conduct for doctors in Australia – released for public comment in June – arguing clauses under the banner of professionalism have the potential to stifle doctors’ right to publicly express their personal and professional opinions and undermine their contribution to public debate.
In its submission, Avant agrees this section could potentially limits doctors’ freedom of speech and “may impact on the ability of doctors to comment on issues they believe are important”.
Of great concern, the insurer says, is a new requirement that doctors when putting forward views that depart from the profession’s “generally accepted views” must make acknowledgement of the profession’s view or risk disciplinary action.
The draft Code does not make clear whether the rule applies only in the doctors’ workplace – or out in the broader world, Avant says.
“We understand the sentiment behind reminding practitioners of the need to acknowledge and consider the effect of comments and actions outside work. However, the clause potentially applies to any statement that a doctor might make whether in a professional or personal setting.
“It is unclear what comment it is intended to apply to. As currently drafted the section could apply to personal opinions about clinical and ethical issues and/or personal opinions about non-clinical issues, including about political issues, such as climate change or immigration policy.
“We are concerned that in the absence of a definition of “public comment”, this clause could expose doctors to claims of unprofessional conduct merely for stating a differing view about any issue, medical or otherwise.”
Avant says a rethink is also needed on these areas:
- New provisions on culturally safe and respectful practice risk may leave doctors unsure about whether to challenge cultural practices that conflict with good medical practice and could place patients, particularly children, at risk;
- The new obligations for individual doctors designed to stamp out discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment are too onerous and exceed what’s required under current workplace laws;
- The requirement for doctors to encourage organ donation should be removed. Avant says the decision to donate is one for patients and their families, and some doctors have copped criticism from patients and family members for discussing the subject with them.