Australian Health Review Australian Health Review Society
Journal of the Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Distrusting doctors’ evidence: a qualitative study of disability income support policy makers in Australia and Ontario, Canada

Ashley McAllister A B C and Stephen R. Leeder B
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Department of Public Health Sciences, Karolinska Institutet, Tomtebodavägen 18A, 171 77, Stockholm, Sweden.

B Menzies Centre for Health Policy, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia. Email: stephen.leeder@sydney.edu.au

C Corresponding author. Email: ashley.mcallister@ki.se

Australian Health Review - https://doi.org/10.1071/AH16092
Submitted: 22 April 2016  Accepted: 28 March 2017   Published online: 15 May 2017

Abstract

Objective The aim of the present study was to describe how policy makers (bureaucrats and politicians) in Australia and Ontario (Canada) perceive evidence provided by doctors to substantiate applications for disability income support (DIS) by their patients with mental illnesses. Because many mental illnesses (e.g. depression) lack diagnostic tests, their existence and effects are more difficult to demonstrate than most somatic illnesses.

Methods Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 45 informants, all influential in the design of the assessment of DIS programs. The informants were subcategorised into advocates, legal representatives, doctors (general practitioners (GPs) and specialists (e.g. psychiatrists)), policy insiders and researchers. Informants were found through snowball sampling. Following the principles of grounded theory, data collection and analysis occurred in tandem.

Results Informants expressed some scepticism about doctors’ evidence. Informants perceived that doctors could, due to lack of diagnostic certainty, ‘write these things [evidence] however [they] want to’. Psychiatrists, perceived as having more time and skills, were considered as providing more trustworthy evidence than GPs.

Conclusion Doctors, providing evidence to support applications, play an important role in determining disability. However, policy makers perceive doctors’ evidence about mental illnesses as less trustworthy than evidence about somatic illnesses. This affects decisions by government adjudicators.

What is known about the topic? Doctors (GPs and psychiatrists) are often asked to provide evidence to substantiate a DIS application for those with mental illnesses. We know little about the perception of this evidence by the policy makers who consider these applications.

What does this paper add? Policy makers distrust doctors’ evidence in relation to mental illnesses. This is partly because many mental illnesses lack diagnostic proof, in contrast with evidence for somatic conditions, where the disability is often visible and proven through diagnostic tests. Furthermore, GPs’ evidence is considered less trustworthy than that of psychiatrists.

What are the implications for practitioners? Although doctors’ evidence is often required, the utility of their evidence is limited by policy makers’ perceptions.

Additional keywords: disability welfare, grounded theory, mental illness, policy design.


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