Sometimes It Needs a Doctor’s Touch

Yesterday a bill was moved in parliament by Dr. Godfrey Farrugia and co-sponsored by Dr. Deo Debattista to enable doctors to examine and treat 16 and 17 year olds without parental consent, only if they were deemed able and mature enough. This is a bill long in the coming and absolutely necessary to address certain anomalies in our legislation.

Ever since I graduated as a doctor, and believe me that was not yesterday, I have come across situations where the need for youths of that age to get parental consent for treatment of a medical condition bordered on the ridiculous.

In my time at the emergency department I treated two youths with traumatic amputation sustained at a place of work, both were sixteen. As the injuries were not life threatening, we needed their parent’s consent to treat them. Where is the sense in that? They were old enough to work, they were old enough to be put in harm’s way, yet they were not old enough to consent to treatment for their injuries.

One incident was even more mind boggling. A seventeen-year-old mother, accompanied by her 17-year-old husband presented with appendicitis. She could not be operated until we got hold of her parents to sign the consent. This girl, whether you agree or not, was old enough to marry, old enough to have a child, and yet was unable to decide how she could be treated.

Any doctor worth his salt knows that three-quarters of the road to reaching a correct diagnosis comes from taking a good history from the patient. This law enables 16 and 17 year olds to be able to speak to a physician in the knowledge that they will not be obliged to reveal what has passed between themselves to the parents of the patient. I understand that this may raise the hackles of many a parent. But think of it. I have a sixteen-year-old daughter, and just like any other father or mother, getting her to express her concerns and troubles can be as difficult as extracting a tooth from an elephant. If young people like her visit a doctor feeling free to discuss their symptoms and concerns in the full knowledge that what has been said will remain confidential, aren’t they more likely to unload what is troubling them completely? Isn’t it then more likely they will be treated properly?

This may seem like an over liberal law to some, but in some countries a child of ANY age can request a parent to leave a consulting room to speak confidentially to a doctor. If the doctor deems the child mature enough to do that, the parents are obliged to accede to that request. I am not saying that we should go down that pathway, I am mentioning it just to show how unradical this law and just how archaic our current system is.

Some concerns were voiced in parliament about how is it possible to analyse the maturity of a patient within a ten-minute consultation. I honestly cannot understand that concern. I think any physician, teacher or other adult used to dealing with people can judge the mental age of someone within minutes of speaking to them. Until now the biggest problem has been getting them to speak, as more often than not the parents don’t give them a chance.

Every now and then our politicians move bills in parliament that will deliver no political or personal gain. They are moved out of necessity, not out of some grand design. I say chapeau to Godfrey Farrugia for moving this bill, chapeau to Deo Debattista for co-sponsoring it, chapeau to both sides of the house for engaging in a lively but constructive debate, and chapeau to each and every individual member of parliament for passing it through its second reading unanimously. Would there be more occasions when I could say the same. Parliament itself needs a good dose of medicine, it seems that sometimes it needs a doctor’s touch to make it function well..