All about age and confidentiality

Confidentiality is an important concept in health care. Most of what you tell a doctor is confidential, but your age could affect how this works. If you're under 16, and someone is harming you, a doctor is legally bound to do something about it. Age, in different states, will also affect whether you can consent to treatment.

This could be for you if:

  • You're under 18 
  • You want to know when you can consent to treatment 
  • You want to get the pill, or counselling, without your parents knowing 
  • You want to know about confidentiality
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Most of what you tell a doctor or other health worker is confidential. See our confidentiality fact sheet for more info on confidentiality generally. But often, being underage changes how confidentiality works.

If you're underage?

The laws about confidentiality when you are underage differ between states and territories.

Automatic confidentiality

Automatic confidentiality means that unless someone’s going to be seriously harmed or killed, a doctor or other health professional has to keep what you say private, even from your parents/guardian. The age that you have automatic confidentiality rights is:

  • Fourteen and over in the NT
  • Sixteen and over in NSW and SA
  • Eighteen and over in all other states

Pre-automatic confidentiality

Even if you're below the age of gaining automatic confidentiality rights in your state, most things you say to a doctor, including things about sex, drug use and other difficult stuff will remain private. The best way to know for sure is to talk to the doctor, psychologist, counsellor or nurse at the beginning of a consultation/session about what is private and what is not. That way you know.

If you're unsafe

Doctors have to tell the authorities, like police or DOCS, if you're under 16 and someone is harming or abusing you. This includes things that happened in the past, and are harming your health now.

If doctors don't report the abuse of people under sixteen, they're breaking the law. If you're seventeen or eighteen, it's up to them whether they report it. If you're frightened of something like this, talk to the doctor about what they can and can't keep private.

Getting treatments, like contraception or counselling

So when do you hit the age at which you’re allowed to make your own choices about medical treatment? And it is legally considered no one’s business but your own? Again it differs from state to state. You have to be:

  • Fourteen or older in the NT
  • Sixteen or older in NSW
  • Sixteen or older in SA if two doctors sign off on a specific course of treatment
  • Eighteen and older everywhere else in Australia

This applies unless it’s been decided that you aren’t able to make informed decisions about treatment, for some reason. 

What this means is that you can take full responsibility for making decisions about your own treatment. For instance, you can get the contraceptive pill without having to involve your parents. 

If you’re under the age to give consent for treatment

If you're below the age where you have full rights to decide your own treatment (in your area), you might still be able to give consent for your own treatment. It's up to the doctor to decide whether you're mature enough to make the decision. They’ll probably consider things like:

  • Your age and maturity
  • How independent you are – e.g. if you live at home, support yourself etc
  • How serious the treatment is
  • Whether you understand why you need treatment, what it involves and side effects

Your parents, carers or guardians don't have to be involved or informed about what you’re being treated with if the doctor decides you are mature enough.

The doctor will talk to you about the treatment, why you want it, and whether you should inform your family or carer. If a doctor decides they need consent from a parent or guardian, and you don’t want to ask them for consent, the doctor can’t tell anyone about what you discussed – unless there are safety issues (e.g. your health is at serious risk, you’ve been seriously harmed etc).

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 12 August, 2015
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