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14 February 2023

By Tim Baker

Are you aware of the Australian Healthcare Charter of Rights?

Don’t worry if you’re not, you are certainly not alone. It’s not like your average doctor reads you your rights like a police officer before treatment.  But occasionally, in a doctor’s waiting room, pathology lab or other health care setting you might see a poster on the wall explaining your rights as a patient in the healthcare system.

The charter was developed in collaboration with patients, doctors, healthcare managers and policy makers and enshrines what people have a right to expect when they engage with the health care system. It was first released in 2008 and updated in 2018 after another consultation process, with an increased focus on “person-centred care” and empowering patients to take an active role in their health care.

Essentially, it articulates your rights as a patient to access, safety, respect, a sense of partnership, clear information about treatments and other issues, your right to privacy and the opportunity to provide feedback.

Access refers to the provision of healthcare services that meet the patient’s individual needs. Safety means safe and high-quality healthcare in an environment that is not only safe but makes the patient feel safe. Respect means being treated as an individual with dignity and having your culture, identity, beliefs and choices recognised and respected.

Partnership requires the patient to be able to ask questions and make decisions in collaboration with their health care provider, and to involve any chosen friends or family in the process. Information is vital for a patient to understand risks, benefits, costs, waiting times and to be able to give informed consent to treatment. Accessing one’s own health information and being offered assistance to interpret information is also key. Privacy is pretty self-explanatory and relates to one’s health records being secure and confidential and personal privacy respected.

Finally, feedback is vital for patients to feel they can make complaints without it effecting their treatment and share experiences to improve the quality of care.

Now, who among us feels like our health care rights have never been impinged upon? Can I get a show of hands? The charter sets a fairly high bar to maintain in often busy and stressed healthcare settings. Importantly, these rights should also be seen as responsibilities for the health care system and clincians, so the onus of ensuring they are met does not just fall to patients who might feel overwhelmed or disempowered while going through treatment.

The Australian Medical Association adopted the World Medical Association’s Geneva Declaration in 2006, which sets out the pledge doctors take to “serve humanity” and which covers many of the same issues

Anecdotally, it seems to me many patients feel their health care rights are not always observed when engaging with the health system, and these lapses could range from the trivial to the deeply concerning. Receiving full information around treatment costs, waiting times and side effects seems to be a common issue.

Being empowered to feel like an active player in your own health care and decision making also seems to be often lacking in the patient experience. Compliant patients are easier to deal with in busy, time-poor healthcare settings. Patients who baulk at recommended treatments or have lots of questions are often seen as an irritation by stressed clinicians with over-flowing waiting rooms.

Cancer patients are particularly vulnerable while moving through treatment, which is often highly toxic and debilitating, which makes these rights particularly critical. So, what do you do if you feel your rights have been impinged? The Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Healthcare website has much useful information and a link to relevant agencies to make complaints or provide feedback:

Of course, none of these are new issues. An article by Francis W. Peabody M.D., published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1927, sums up the issue nicely: “The treatment of a disease may be entirely impersonal; the care of a patient must be completely personal. One of the essential qualities of the clinician is interest in humanity, for the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”

About the Author

Tim Baker is an award-winning author, journalist and storyteller specialising in surfing history and culture, working across a wide variety of media from books and magazines to film, video, and theatre. Some of his most notable books include “Occy”, a national bestseller and chosen by the Australia Council as one of “50 Books You can’t Put Down” in 2008, and “The Rip Curl Story” which documents the rise of the iconic Australian surf brand to mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. Tim is a former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines. He has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award.

Tim was diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but seven years on, at 57, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting The Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.