Making decisions about your care

Rights and responsibilities

This section explains what patient rights and responsibilities are and why they are important. The information is based on the Australian Charter of Healthcare Rights, which was developed by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care and endorsed for nationwide use in 2008.

The Charter sets out seven key patient rights – see below.

For specific information about your rights in the workplace and other legal and financial matters, see other rights issues, or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to request free booklets and fact sheets.

What are patient rights?

Patient rights are rules and guarantees for people receiving medical care. Some rights are legally enforceable (see below); other rights are what you can reasonably expect from your care and are not legally enforceable.

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

Why are rights important?

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 navigate the system and take an active role in your care.

Are rights legally enforceable?

Some rights are legally enforceable, which means that laws exist to protect them. There are laws against discrimination and laws governing the provision of 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 medical care, the right to be free from discrimination, the right to refuse treatment and the right to privacy. They create obligations for health professionals and the health care system.

While some of the rights 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. For more information, see getting a second opinion.

Rights in the Australian health care system


You have a right to receive adequate and timely health care services that address your needs. These services will be free if you have a current Medicare card and are treated as an inpatient in a public hospital. You have the right to obtain a second opinion.


The care you receive should be safe and of high quality. After discharge from hospital, you should receive instructions about how to care for yourself at home so you have a safe recovery.


You have a right to give a compliment or make a complaint, and for any concerns to be addressed.


You should be shown respect, dignity and consideration, and receive services free from discrimination, regardless of your age, gender, sexual preference, religion or culture.


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. You can request free interpreter services if English is not your first language.


Your personal information must be kept private and confidential (except in very limited circumstances). This includes your written medical records.


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.

What are patient responsibilities?

To be effective, health care is more than a one-way street. If you expect your health care providers to behave in a certain way – for example, to communicate openly – it helps to provide the same in return. Your hospital or treatment centre might give you a brochure about your responsibilities, which may cover the following three areas.

Being honest and open

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

  • you have a question or problem – it’s vital that you communicate any issues that 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 a young family or an elderly relative, or if you work or study
  • you have side effects or pain – your treatment team may be able to change the dose of your medicine or offer you medicine to relieve side effects
  • you’re seeing more than one doctor or another health professional – this includes complementary or alternative therapy practitioners
  • you are taking any other medicines – this includes prescription and over-the-counter drugs, and complementary and alternative 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
  • you decide not to follow instructions – for example, by not taking prescribed medicine.
Being considerate

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

  • treating staff and other patients with courtesy, dignity and respect
  • being on time
  • letting the health service know if you are unable to attend an appointment.
Being flexible

Your doctor plans your treatment based on your initial test results. You will then have tests to check your response to treatment, and 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.

Expert content reviewers:

Therese Burke, General Counsel, Cancer Council NSW; Toni Ashmore, Manager, Cancer Psychosocial Service, ACT Health, ACT; Art Beavis, Consumer; Marina Kastelan, Neuro-Oncology Cancer Care Coordinator, Royal North Shore and North Shore Private Hospitals, NSW; Dr Deborah Lawson, Legal Policy Advisor, McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria and Union for International Cancer Control, VIC; Sarah Penman, Legal and Financial Support Services Manager, Cancer Council NSW; Jeanne Potts, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria, VIC; Sharnie Rolfe, Consumer; Helen Tayler, Social Worker/Counsellor, Cancer Counselling Service, Belconnen Community Health Centre, ACT. We would also like to thank the health professionals and consumers who worked on previous editions of this title, as well as the original writers: Louisa Fitz-Gerald, Jenny Mothoneos, Vivienne O’Callaghan, Marge Overs and Laura Wuellner.

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