This month’s ABC Four Corners program, Health Hazard, looked at how your postcode can determine the quality of healthcare you get. The day after, the Bureau of Health Information released its Healthcare Quarterly report for the period between April and June 2019.
Four Corners revealed concerning evidence about the standard of hospital care many Australians are receiving. It looked at four harrowing stories involving preventable deaths and severe injuries that occurred to patients in rural and regional hospitals. It rightly pointed out that hospitals are supposed to be a place of care where patients are treated by highly trained staff well versed in dealing with emergencies and a vast range of illnesses. But not every hospital is delivering first class care. Medical staff told the program that it’s time to speak out about a series of catastrophic incidents where patients have died or been permanently disabled.
The further a patient is from a major city hospital, the higher the rates are for preventable deaths. The more Australians embarking on sea or tree changes the greater the strain on the hospital system, leaving medical staff struggling to cope. Those left with lifelong disabilities as a result of medical mistakes struggle to rebuild their lives.
Healthcare Quarterly data
Healthcare Quarterly is a series of regular reports that track activity and performance for emergency department (ED), elective surgery, admitted patient and ambulance services in NSW.
The report shows, compared with the same quarter last year:
- About seven in 10 ED (71.8%) patients were treated within clinically recommended time frames, down 4.8 percentage points.
- Seven in 10 patients (70.6%) spent four hours or less in the ED, down 3.4 percentage points.
- Almost nine in 10 patients (87.6%) who arrived by ambulance had their care transferred to ED staff within 30 minutes, down 4.0 percentage points.
Emergency departments were once again busier than they were in the same quarter a year ago, with more presentations overall and more patients arriving by ambulance. A typical patient in NSW will have waited longer for their treatment to start and spent more time overall in the emergency department. However, there is considerable variation in performance when you look at the results for individual hospitals.
In the Hunter and New England Local Health District (for hospitals in areas including, Newcastle, Tamworth and Taree), hospital emergency departments saw 106,923 patients from April to June, 2019 – up 5.2 per cent from the same time last year.
Related to this is the current review by NSW Health of 10 years post Garling Report into regional hospitals being conducted presently. The ‘Final Report of the Special Commission of Inquiry into Acute Care Services in NSW Public Hospitals’ (the ‘Garling Report’) was released in 2008 and presented various recommendations to the New South Wales Government.
As hospitals were understaffed at the time, and training was deemed insufficient, the recommendations aimed at improving patient care and treatment by focusing on hospital staff and implementation of new training and best practice guidelines. However, there is still concern, particularly with respect to smaller regional hospitals, that these recommendations have not led to any significant improvement in the level of care and treatment which is being provided. (Read more on the Garling Report in our blog, here.)
At Catherine Henry Lawyers, we have represented many clients who have claimed medical negligence damages for personal injury and death as the result of inadequate care and treatment received at regional hospitals. The root causes of these failures were that these hospitals were under-staffed, under-resourced and/or the staff did not have the requisite training and experience to provide necessary acute care and treatment.
Better regulation and data needed
While these stories are shocking and governments, health services, medical practitioners and the community must work together to prevent them from happening again, the reality is mistakes will happen. A poor incident or outcome for a patient does not mean that we need to write off a hospital or health service.
It is imperative that the Australian and NSW governments make the necessary legislative and funding reforms in relation to our acute care hospitals. Urgent action is required to ensure that the acute care and treatment provided by regional hospitals is both timely and competent, ultimately avoiding preventable injuries and deaths. This includes work to attract and retain appropriate medical workforces to regional areas including medical schools in regional universities such as the one at the University of Newcastle.
What we particularly need is better regulation. To assist with this – and to alert not only governments, but communities, to systemic issues – is better, publicly available data.