How age affects confidentiality
Most of what you tell a doctor is confidential, but your age could affect how this works. Learn what confidentiality means, how age can affect confidentiality and whether you can consent to treatment.
What is confidentiality?
Most of what you tell a doctor or other health worker is confidential, which basically means that they can’t discuss what you tell them with anyone else, unless you give them permission to do so. See our page on confidentiality for more information about your rights. However, it’s important to know that being underage can change how confidentiality works.
What happens to confidentiality if you’re underage?
The laws about confidentiality when you’re underage differ between states and territories.
‘Automatic confidentiality’ means that unless you’re likely to be seriously harmed or your life is at risk, a doctor or other health professional is required by law to keep what you say private, even from your parents or guardian. The age by which you have automatic confidentiality rights is:
- 14 years and over in the Northern Territory
- 16 and over in New South Wales and South Australia
- 18 and over everywhere else in Australia.
Even if you’re below the age of having automatic confidentiality in your state, most things you say to a doctor, including things about sex, drug use and other difficult stuff, will generally remain private. The best way to know for sure is to ask the doctor, psychologist, counsellor or nurse at the beginning of a consultation or session what information about you will be kept private and what won’t.
What happens to confidentiality if you’re unsafe?
If a doctor or other health-care professional has concerns for your safety, they’re legally required to tell the appropriate people. These situations usually include those where there is a threat of harm to yourself or others.
For example, if you’re under 16 and someone has harmed or abused you, health-care professionals must tell the authorities, such as the police or Family and Community Services. This includes abuse that has happened in the past, as well as current abuse. If health-care professionals don’t report the abuse of someone under 16, they’re breaking the law. If you’re 17 or 18, it’s up to the health-care professional to decide whether or not to report the abuse, and they’ll likely discuss with you what is the best course of action.
Another situation might be where someone talks about harming or killing themselves or someone else. Health-care professionals have a legal obligation to keep you safe and to get you help if you’re having any thoughts of harming yourself or someone else. It’s important to remember that in these situations you aren’t getting into trouble. Health-care professionals should work with you to decide on the best way to tell your parents about things like self-harm.
When can you make your own choices about medical treatment?
Have you wanted to make your own decisions about medical or mental health treatment without involving your parents? Examples could include wanting to get a prescription for the contraceptive pill or seeing a counsellor.
Again, your right to make these decisions depends on your age and the state or territory where you live. You have to be:
- 14 years or older in the Northern Territory
- 16 or older in New South Wales
- 16 or older in South Australia, as long as two doctors sign off on a specific course of treatment
- 18 or older everywhere else in Australia.
These rules apply unless it’s been decided, for some reason, that you aren’t able to make informed decisions about treatment.
What this means is that, if you meet the age requirement where you live, you can take full responsibility for making decisions about your own medical and mental health treatment. For example, you can be prescribed the contraceptive pill without having to involve your parents at all.
What if you’re under the age to give consent for treatment?
If you’re below the age where you have full rights to make decisions regarding your own health-care treatment, you may still have the right to give consent. It’s up to a doctor to decide whether you’re mature and responsible enough to make decisions on your own behalf. They’ll consider things such as:
- your age and maturity
- how independent you are – for example, if you live at home, support yourself, etc.
- how serious the treatment is
- whether you understand why you need treatment, what it involves and what the side effects are.
Your parents, carer or guardian don’t have to be involved or informed about your health-care treatment if a doctor decides you’re mature enough to make these decisions on your own. You might decide however that you want a trusted adult involved in your treatment to help support you.
Your doctor will talk to you about the treatment you want, your reasons for wanting it, and whether you should let your family or carer know. If your doctor decides they need consent from your parents or guardian, and you don’t want to ask them, the doctor isn’t allowed to tell anyone about what you discussed with them – unless your safety is an issue (say, if your health is at serious risk or you’ve been seriously harmed).
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