The health safety commission said in a fact sheet issued to hospitals last year that the number of adverse events in Australian hospitals was “unacceptable” and that clinicians must work to reduce their likelihood to “improve the quality of care provided to patients”.
Consumer advocates and public health experts say it’s time to pull back the curtain on hospital complication rates – but a national database is likely to be years away.
Grattan Institute health economist Stephen Duckett said while sentinel events were rare, hospitals should make public what happened and how they responded to – and learned from – each mishap.
“It is about transparency,” Dr Duckett said.
Less-rare complications such as infection rates should also be published in a searchable national database, he said.
“We’ve got to have this information in the public domain, partly to shame organisations into doing things and partly for some people who might be interested in the comparison [between hospitals].”
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s latest report on hospital-acquired complications found them in one in 50 hospital discharges in 2017-18, but did not reveal which hospitals.
Australian media outlets – including Nine, publisher of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age – have united with a ‘Right to Know’ campaign to push for increased public access to information that impacts on citizens’ lives.
The safety and quality commission, which sets clinical standards for healthcare providers, is working on a project to make hospital complications data public, but progress has been slow and the level of detail to be published will be subject to ministerial sign-off.
A spokesman for federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government was “committed to improving hospital quality and safety, and working together with state and territory governments”.
“While the states did not agree to individual hospital designation as part of signing up to reporting of sentinel events, we would welcome it if they wished to publish the events”, the spokesman said.
Dr Duckett said the Abbott government’s decision to abolish the National Health Performance Authority as part of the 2014 budget had “undoubtedly slowed things down”, as the agency – unlike the safety and quality commission – had been specifically set up to publish the data.
“Unfortunately when that decision was made, we lost transparency and it’s been five years since and nothing’s happened,” he said.
“If that organisation had continued to exist, it would have undoubtedly been in the public domain.”
Consumer Health Forum chief executive Leanne Wells said detailed knowledge about hospitals’ quality and safety track records was important to patients, “particularly those about to undergo a procedure”, which was often “an anxious time”.
Labor’s health spokesman Chris Bowen said the federal government “should be listening to the experts when deciding what data needs to be available in the national interest”.
“The minister would not have had to re-establish this database if his own useless government hadn’t abolished the authority,” Mr Bowen said.
Mr Hunt’s spokesman said hospital-level data “is owned by and is the responsibility of the states” and that it was “entirely within their province as to whether they choose to release such information”.
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.