Socio-legal Perspectives

Paper 2: The role of the Medical Officer of Health under section 126 of the New Zealand Health Act 1956

Dr John Holmes, Medical Officer of Health, Otago District Health Board New Zealand

New Zealand has had a legislative provision dating from 1918, whereby a Medical Officer of Health can make application to a District Court for the committal to an appropriate institution of any aged, infirm, incurable or destitute persons who are considered living in insanitary conditions or without proper care and attention.

Requests for compulsory hospitalisation of elderly people represent an interesting interface between public health physicians and personal health care providers. Issues relating to patient autonomy, community expectations and provision of services are some of the practical issues which must be addressed when considering making an approach for compulsory admission to accommodation. Such requests are relatively infrequent but they take a long time to resolve and require a multi-disciplinary approach and other social service agencies need to be consulted.

This paper will review the experience of one Medical Officer of Health practising in the southern New Zealand over the past 16 years.