October 20th, 2005
Yesterday the sexual health group Brook launched a new campaign called ‘Wise Up! Your rights on sexual health’.
The aim of the campaign is to highlight the threat within the UK and Northern Ireland to young people’s right to confidential sexual health advice.
New guidance planned by the government would compel health professionals to report sexual activity in those aged under 16. It would give police and social services access to teenagers’ health records. Not surprisingly this has caused confusion for both health professionals and teenagers and many doctors are worried that the new guidance could harm the confidential doctor/patient relationship.
Luckily Brook has the support of the British Medical Association (BMA). Dr Michael Wilks, Chairman of the BMA’s Ethics Committee said: “The BMA is backing Brook’s campaign as we are extremely concerned about guidance that could threaten the trust young people have in doctors. Although confidentiality is not absolute, and can be breached where there is a risk of serious harm, mandatory reporting of non-abusive relationships threatens the trust that underpins the relationship between doctors and patients. This will deter young people from seeking medical care to reduce risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. Only where there is trust do young people talk sufficiently openly for health professionals to ensure that their health needs are met, enabling conversations to start that identify abuse where it occurs”.
Dr Wilks and others have expressed concern that if you make guidance mandatory you’ll not only leave those teenagers who want sex education and advice unattended to, but those being abused or coerced into sex, or who’re at risk of unplanned pregnancy or STIs would also be more greatly at risk – they won’t be able to ask for help if they think someone will report them.
The planned new guidance is supposed to be part of increasing child protection measures, but many, myself included, believe they would actually put young people at greater risk.Brook spokesperson Jan Barlow explained, “Any erosion of young people’s rights to receive sexual health advice and treatment would be disastrous. It could reverse all the good work that has been set in progress, leading to a whole generation of young people losing faith in the sexual health services available to them, and to a massive increase in the rates of unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections”
Brook surveyed over 700 under-25 year olds about the planned guidelines. 64% said they’d be less likely to seek advice on pregnancy; STIs and contraception if they knew their files were no longer confidential. 74% of those under 16 said they would not seek help if they thought a health professional would pass on that information.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education and Skills has been reported in many papers as saying the consultation on changing the confidentiality law was about child protection in the wake of the Soham murders. Whilst we all sympathise with those affected by the Soham murders it’s hard to see how changing the confidentiality laws around teens asking for sex advice would have prevented such a tragedy.
We must protect our rights to confidential sexual health information. Talking to someone about sex doesn’t mean they’re already having sex, nor that they will have sex in the near future. Often young people will postpone early sexual activity if given education and support about their sexual health rights and responsibilities. If we follow these planned guidance young people will have no safe spaces to ask for support about sex.
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