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Coroner Wants Review Of Mental Health Privacy

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Marie Shroff
Marie Shroff

Wellington, Aug 12 NZPA - Privacy Commissioner Marie Schroff will talk to the Law Commission about Wellington coroner Ian Smith's recommendations in his findings on the suicide of a young university student two years ago.

Mr Smith called for a review of the Privacy Act so health professionals could more easily talk to the families of people suffering mental health difficulties.

His call came as chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean said there should be more openness on reporting of suicides, which claim 50 percent more lives than road deaths each year.

Mr Smith today released his report into the death of Sophie Coady, 20, who took her own life after a night out on the town in Wellington on St Patrick's Day in 2008.

Originally from Christchurch, she was attending Massey University and in 2007 went to an after hours medical centre and sought treatment for depression as she was having suicidal thoughts.

She then started seeing a doctor and a psychologist at Massey's Student Health Services and was taking anti-depressant medication.

She stopped taking the medication by the end of 2007 but restarted in February 2008 when she saw her doctor, but at the time denied any suicidal thoughts.

Miss Coady's family believed that had they known she was coming off her medication they would have resisted it, and if they had known of her suicidal thoughts they would have tried to help her more.

The student health doctor said she did not have access to the psychologist's counselling notes and Miss Coady was not mentioned in staff meetings with the counsellor, while the counsellor believed she was a low risk of suicide and was getting better through 2007.

The night she took her life it was likely to be an impulsive act, the counsellor said.

Mr Smith, who has sent his report to the Privacy Commissioner, Director of Mental Health, the Health and Disability Commissioner and the Law Commission, said health professionals faced a difficult situation with privacy and confidentiality, particularly in the area of mental health.

He believed the provisions of the Privacy Act dealing with mental health issues should be reviewed.

Each situation needed to be dealt with on a case by case basis and the patient should be consulted first about information being passed on, he said.

If consent was refused then a health professional should be able to consult a family member under specific guidelines.

Mr Smith said there was a surprising lack of disclosure between the student health service's GP and the counsellor.

He recommended the student health service review its protocol to ensure there was a "robust inter-sharing of information with respect to a client's welfare".

Ms Shroff said the law clearly gave practitioners the discretion to disclose patient information where he or she thought it necessary for patient safety, but it did not go further and require them to do so.

"Patient privacy, trust and medical confidentiality are fundamental values underpinning good medical practice," she said.

"These values come under close scrutiny in tragic cases such as this where things have gone wrong.

"We should not fall into the trap of thinking that these decisions about whether to disclose information, particularly common in mental health cases, are easy or clearcut," Ms Shroff said.

"They are hard decisions but ones that the practitioners involved in the case are best equipped to make."

She said she supported the Law Commission's current review of privacy and would discuss with them Mr Smith's recommendations.

Massey University communications director James Gardiner said the Massey Student Health and Counselling Services staff had reviewed the protocol relating to sharing of information between health practitioners, as recommended by the coroner, and were confident there was a robust inter-sharing of information with respect to clients' welfare.

Dr Charles Hornabrook, the Ministry of Health's deputy director of mental health, said the issue had been raised in the past and he was unable to comment until "we have fully considered the coroner's findings".

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