When religious views interfere with patient care

The relationship between a health practitioner and their patient is a special one.

It is a relationship of trust, where statements and opinions expressed by health practitioners have profound impacts on their patients and are often accepted by patients without question. Patients trust that their health practitioner will treat their disclosures confidentially and put their needs first when giving advice or providing treatment.

This report identifies cases where health practitioners have breached that relationship of trust by allowing their religious views to interfere with patient healthcare.

These complaints represent only the tip of the iceberg, being some of the more serious breaches. This is because very few patients who experience poor treatment make complaints and even fewer complaints make their way to a published decision by a tribunal or health board.

These cases matter because the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill 2019 will make it easier for personal religious views to interfere in patient healthcare.

The Religious Discrimination Bill makes it harder for employers and professional bodies to impose rules which require health practitioners to treat all patients despite their personal religious objections. These provisions do not only apply to life-and-death procedures such as abortion or euthanasia (which are already adequately addressed by State and Territory laws), but to any particular kind of health service delivered by a doctor, nurse, midwife, pharmacist or psychologist.

The proposed Religious Discrimination Bill also removes protections from patients who are currently protected by federal, state and territory anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of their disability, sex, pregnancy, marital status, sexual orientation or gender identity. A health practitioner will be permitted to express polite and well-meaning, yet harmful, religious views in a consultation setting, with their discriminatory provision of health services immunised when challenged under other anti-discrimination laws.

The Bill in its current form is unbalanced and presents a significant risk to everyone seeking access to safe and appropriate health care free of judgement. Unless the Religious Discrimination Bill is changed to prioritise patient care, we will see more of these kinds of cases.

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