Your rights

Sunday 30 June, 2013

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On this page: What are patient rights? ι What are my key rights? ι Why are rights important? ι Are they legally enforceable? ι What are patient responsibilities? ι Reviewers

These pages explain what patient rights and responsibilities are and why they're important. The information is based on the Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights, which was endorsed for nationwide use in 2008. 

What are patient rights?

Patient rights are rules and guarantees for people receiving medical care. They may be formal or informal:

  • Formal rights are outlined in law.
  • Informal rights are fair and reasonable expectations about your care. These are based on accepted attitudes and research, and through talking to consumer groups, patients, doctors, nurses and social workers.

Rights and expectations affect people seeking care in both the public and private health care systems.

What are my key rights?

The Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights sets out seven key patient rights. Some rights, such as receiving safe care and being free from discrimination, are
legally enforceable. There are advocacy groups that speak out about rights-related issues. 

Rights in the Australian Health Care System


You have a right to receive health care services that address your needs. These services will be free if you're an inpatient in a public hospital who has a current Medicare card. You can obtain a second opinion.
Safety The care you receive should be safe and high quality. After discharge from hospital, you should receive instructions about how to care for yourself at home so you have a safe recovery.
Respect You should be shown consideration, and receive services free from discrimination regardless of your age, gender, sexual preference, religion or culture. You can ask for a health care interpreter.
Communication Services, treatment options, risks and costs should be clearly explained to you. The communication should be appropriate and on a regular basis. You can ask questions if you need clarification.
Participation You can take part in decisions about your health care. For example, you can decide if you want to be treated by a particular health care practitioner; take part in medical research; or participate in the clinical training of junior doctors and medical students. If you don’t want to receive care, you can leave a health facility at any time, at your own risk and liability.
Privacy Your personal information should be kept private and confidential. This may include keeping your written medical records confidential.
Comment You have a right to give a compliment or make a complaint, and for any concerns to be addressed.


Why are rights important?

If you're aware of what you can reasonably expect of your treatment team and the health care system – and what can be expected of you – you'll be more able to navigate the system and take an active role in your cancer care.

Are they legally enforceable?

Some rights, such as the right to safe and competent medical care, may be legally enforceable. This is because there are laws governing the provision of medical treatment and the conduct of health professionals.

Informal expectations aren’t legal requirements. They can’t be enforced by law. An example of an informal right or expectation is getting a second opinion. This means seeing another specialist to hear their view about your diagnosis and treatment. You may want a second opinion if you’re unsure about the treatment a doctor has recommended. This is fair and reasonable. It's also 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 get them, but some doctors don’t – and there's no law that says they have to. Either way, you have a right to ask, and if your doctor isn't helpful, you can find a second opinion in other ways. 

What are patient responsibilities?

To be most effective, health care is more than a one-way street. If you want communication and patience from your health care providers, it helps to provide the same in return. Your hospital or treatment centre might give you a brochure about your responsibilities, which may include the following three areas.

1. Being honest and open

A key responsibility is to make sure your health care team has all the information they need to offer treatment that's best for you. Be up-front with your team and give them accurate details about your health. Open communication is important in a number of key areas.

Tell your health care team if:

  • you have a question or problem. It’s vital that you communicate any issues that you don’t understand or are troubling you, so your team can help
  • there are factors in your life that might affect treatment decisions, e.g. if you live alone, if you care for a young family or an elderly relative, or if you work or study
  • you have side effects or pain. Your team may be able to change the dose or offer medication to relieve side effects
  • you’re seeing more than one doctor
  • you're taking any other medication, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs and complementary and alternative medicines. Tell your health care team even if you think the medication is harmless. Some medications interact with cancer drugs, causing side effects or reducing the effectiveness of the cancer treatment
  • you decide not to follow instructions – for example, not taking prescribed medication.

2. Being considerate

There are some basic responsibilities that relate to practical issues, including:

  • treating staff and patients with courtesy, dignity and respect
  • being on time
  • letting the health service know if you're unable to attend your appointment.

3. Being flexible

Your doctor plans your treatment based on your initial test results. You’ll then have tests to check your response to treatment, and your doctor may have to reassess the
treatment plan. So it’s important to stay flexible and accept that your treatment may change – although, of course, you still have the right to be involved in making decisions about a new plan.

Reviewers: Sondra Davoren, Senior Legal Advisor, Cancer Council Victoria; Neil Brebner, Team Leader, Cancer Care Support Team, Wide Bay Hospital and Health Service, QLD; Angela Cotroneo, Acting Team Leader & Counsellor, Psycho Oncology Service, Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; Louisa Fitz-Gerald, National Pro Bono Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Val Goodwin, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council QLD; Carol Hargreaves, Cancer
Information Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Lahna Hosken, Helpline Consultant, Cancer Council QLD; Dan Kent, Consumer; Dr Deborah Lawson, Legal Policy Advisor, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Amy Parker, Helpline Consultant, Cancer Council QLD; and Sarah Penman, Pro Bono Case Manager, Cancer Council NSW.

Updated: 30 Jun, 2013