Weekend media reports of incidents at Dubbo and Taree hospitals show the need for government action on disproportionate funding and outcomes in regional NSW hospitals to deliver a fairer health deal for regional NSW people.
The under-resourcing, lack of doctors and systemic failures within NSW regional hospitals were again in the media spotlight – including the death of the father of 60 Minutes reporter, Liz Hayes, over the weekend.
Regional NSW based health lawyer and advocate for healthcare reform, Catherine Henry, says these stories – and countless other reports – highlight the need for government action and an inquiry on regional hospital resourcing and medical workforce issues that are compromising patient care – and at times costing lives.
A report in this weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald says thousands of test results were never followed up at a Dubbo Hospital last year. A whistle-blower doctor who worked at the hospital has alleged the prescription of wrong medications, missed broken bones and the death of a baby girl. Mid last year a NSW Health investigation concluded a systemic failing at the hospital contributed to an infant’s death.
Journalist and presenter of Channel 9‘s 60 Minutes program, Liz Hayes, tragically lost her father a year ago. In an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Ms Hayes tells of how her father died a month after being admitted to the Emergency Department of Manning Base Hospital suffering pneumonia. On his first night in the Emergency Department, he received an overdose on one of his regular medications. He recovered in the Mayo – a private regional hospital – but then suffered a massive stroke. Ms Hayes says the vital anti-stroke tablets her father took for a heart condition, atrial fibrillation, had never been given to him during his entire eight-day stay in the private hospital. Ms Hayes was also shocked to learn that the 79 bed private hospital has just one doctor on the wards with only a doctor on call after hours.
Ms Henry says she handles too many negligence cases and inquests involving avoidable death and serious injury in regional NSW.
“I see first-hand the impact of disproportionately poor health resourcing for rural and regional residents,” Ms Henry says.
“Governments – state and federal – need a proper, data based strategy with more funding to improve rural healthcare.”
She says there also needs to be more public data to monitor performance.
“We still have agencies such as the National Health Performance Authority refusing to release national data on death rates and adverse events in hospitals. In the United States and England, this information is available to the public – by postcode – at the touch of a button.”
“The strategy needs to tackle the reality for regional patients which is poorer access to health services. Many individuals have to travel considerable distances to access medical treatment – there are few doctors and even fewer specialists.”
“Lawyers and journalists play a vital role in exposing systemic issues in health care but it is up to governments to act on that information to prevent more people in regional NSW from poor outcomes including unnecessary deaths.”
A 2019 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AHIW) Rural And Remote Health report showed that the rate of potentially avoidable death increases from 94 per 100,000 people in the major cities to 129 in regional areas. It shows that people living in rural and remote areas have higher rates of hospitalisations, disease, mortality, injury and poorer access to, and use of, health services, compared with those living in metropolitan areas.
Ms Hayes also shared the story of ABC journalist Jamelle Wells whose father was discharged from hospital to a nursing home against the family’s wishes. Her dad died five days later with a broken spirit – feeling unworthy of a hospital bed.
In September last year a damning ABC’s 4 Corners investigation – Health Hazard – shared the stories of patients who had died or suffered significant disability as a result of the care they received at their local regional hospital. These injuries – and deaths – were preventable. The program prompted an outpouring of similar stories from many regional communities. After the 4 Corners’ report, some regional NSW doctors called for a state inquiry into regional healthcare, which has to date been ignored.
Catherine Henry has more than 30 years’ experience as a health, medical and aged care lawyer and is the principal of Newcastle based firm Catherine Henry Lawyers. She also worked for the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission before entering private practice.