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Patient rights and responsibilities

Knowing your patient rights and responsibilities may help you feel reassured that you are receiving safe, high quality health care. The Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights sets out seven key rights for people needing health care. These rights cover access, safety, respect, partnership, information, privacy, and giving feedback. You have rights and responsibilities whether you are seeking care in the public or private health system.

What are patient rights?

Patient rights are rules for people receiving medical care. Some rights are legally enforceable (see opposite); other rights are not protected by laws, but reflect what people can reasonably expect from their care providers.

Some common questions about patient rights are below.

Understanding your rights and what you can reasonably expect of your treatment team and the health care system – and what can be expected of you – will help you find your way through the system and take an active role in your care. It’s important that you feel comfortable to ask questions.

Care that responds to your needs, preferences and values, as well as the needs of your family and carers, is known as person-centred care. This means that your health care providers will respect your care goals, and involve you in decisions about your treatment and ongoing care. Working in partnership to make joint decisions about your care can lead to better outcomes.

Some rights are legally enforceable, which means that laws exist to protect them. There are laws covering discrimination, medical treatment, the conduct of health professionals and the privacy of personal information.

These laws exist to ensure people have the right to safe and competent health care, the right to be free from unlawful discrimination, the right to refuse treatment, and the right to privacy. Health professionals and the health care system have a duty to follow these laws.

While some of the rights set out in the Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights may not be legally enforceable, they do reflect fair and reasonable expectations. For example, you may want a second opinion if you’re unsure about the treatment a doctor has recommended. This means seeing another specialist for their view about your diagnosis and treatment. It is fair and reasonable to expect that your doctor will refer you to another
specialist and share your test results with that person.

Many doctors openly encourage second opinions and help their patients to obtain them. However, some doctors don’t, and there is no law that says they have to. Either way, you have a right to ask for a second opinion.

If your doctor is not helpful, you can find a second opinion in other ways.

To be effective, health care needs to be a two-way street. If you expect your health care providers to behave in a certain way – for example, to communicate openly – it helps to behave the same way in return. Your hospital or treatment centre might give you information about your responsibilities covering the following three areas.

Being considerate

These responsibilities relate to practical issues, including:

  • treating staff and other patients with courtesy, dignity and respect
  • being on time for appointments or letting the health service know if you are unable to attend an appointment
  • following any policies about visiting hours, using mobile phones, smoke-free areas, etc.

Being honest and open

A key responsibility is to make sure your treatment team has all the information they need to offer the best treatment for you. Be up-front and  provide accurate details about your health. Tell your treatment team if:

  • you have a question or problem – it’s important that you talk about issues you don’t understand or that are troubling you so your team can help
  • there are factors in your life that might affect treatment decisions – for example, if you live alone, if you care for an elderly relative or a young family,  or if you work or study
  • you have side effects or pain – your team may be able to adjust the treatment or offer you medicine to relieve side effects you’re seeing more than one doctor or another health professional for any part of your care – this includes complementary or alternative therapy practitioners
  • you decide not to follow their advice – for example, by not taking the medicine they prescribe
  • you are taking any other medicines – this includes prescription and over-the-counter drugs, complementary and alternative medicines, and bush medicines. Tell your treatment team even if you think the medicine is harmless. Some medicines interact with cancer drugs, causing side effects or reducing the effectiveness of the cancer treatment, and this can be harmful.

Being flexible

Your doctor recommends treatment based on your initial test results and your overall health. Depending on how you respond to the treatment you’ve agreed upon, your doctor may have to reassess the original treatment plan. It’s important to be flexible and to accept that your treatment may change. If changes occur, you still have the right to be involved in making decisions about a new treatment plan.

It’s common to have to wait for tests and treatment in public hospitals. The length of time depends on many factors, including the type of cancer you have, its stage, the treatment you are having, and the hospital’s schedule. Hospitals aim to treat people in turn but without waiting for periods of time that would harm treatment outcomes. Waiting for treatment can be stressful – if you are anxious or concerned speak to your doctor or call
Cancer Council 13 11 20.

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Cancer Care and Your Rights

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed June 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: Toni Ashmore, Cancer and Ambulatory Services, Canberra Health Services, ACT; Baker McKenzie, Pro Bono Legal Adviser, NSW; Marion Bamblett, Acting Nurse Unit Manager, Cancer Centre, South Metropolitan Health Service, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; David Briggs, Consumer; Naomi Catchpole, Social Worker, Metro South Health, Princess Alexandra Hospital, QLD; Tarishi Desai, Legal Research Officer, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Kathryn Dwan, Manager, Policy and Research, Health Care Consumers Association, ACT; Hayley Jones, Manager, Treatment and Supportive Care, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Victoria Lear, Cancer Care Coordinator, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Deb Roffe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Michelle Smerdon, National Pro Bono Manager, Cancer Council NSW.

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