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Monday, November 1, 1999 Published at 13:14 GMT


Doctors urged not to reveal mental illness

A history of mental illness can make it hard to get insurance

Doctors should consider refusing to answer questions from insurance companies about a patient's mental illness because they can be used in a discriminatory way, according to a leading GP.

Professor Sir Denis Pereira Gray, president of the Royal College of General Practitioners, told a major conference on depression in London on Thursday that doctors had refused to answer questions about HIV tests in the past.

Mental Health
The Royal College had advised them not to answer, given evidence that some insurance companies were refusing people people policies on the basis that they had had a test, even if it had proved negative.

"They felt evidence of a test meant there must be some risk," said Professor Pereira Gray.

He said his practice had developed a stamp saying doctors refused to answer questions on HIV tests on advice from the Royal College and had received no comeback from insurance companies as a result.

"Perhaps we should do the same thing for mental illness," he said. "If the medical profession unite in the interests of patients we are not as helpless as we think we are."

Insurance companies often ask about a patient¡s medical record before a policy is drawn up. Mental health campaign group Mind says there is usually an open question about mental illness, which does not distinguish between different types of illness.

From calls it has received from patients, it says several have had applications for insurance, mortgages or even credit cards turned down because they have had a mental illness - even if this was many years before and they have been successfully treated for it.

Professor Pereira Gray said: "There is evidence of discrimination by insurance companies and they can even stop people getting a mortgage.

"Lot of ignorance"

"There is a lot of ignorance around and some companies do not really understand that such a large proportion of the public has been treated for mental illness.

"We need to put pressure on them so they understand how common it is."

The conference heard that depression was the cause of 13% of the global burden of disease.

However, insurance companies deny that they discriminate and say they base their decisions on detailed information and expert opinion.

Professor Pereira Gray also called for GPs and mental health specialists to work closer together to help patients.

He said patients were entering "an age of anxiety" where they were increasingly worried about the health effects of everything they did, including the side effects of drugs.

Drug companies were giving out more information about these side effects, but in many cases increased information did not reassure patients.

Professor Simon Wessely of the Institute of Psychiatry also stated that the public was being bombarded with health scare messages, putting greater demands on GPs.

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