Simplistic measures and scaremongering hide true progress in health

It’s a really easy political line to run that our hospitals are the ‘worst performing’ in the country – cherry picking a couple of performance measures and using them to personally attack the Government.

What these political attacks do is cause great distress to our hard working, dedicated health professionals who are doing wonderful work and delivering excellent outcomes for their patients.

It worries me that these frequent attacks will lead to low morale among our nurses and doctors working in genuinely challenging areas such as our emergency departments and yet under significant pressure, they are delivering steady improvements.

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that there is a difference between performance measures and outcomes. In terms of health outcomes, Canberra’s public hospitals are up there with the best. Yes, on occasions, people presenting with less urgent problems have to wait longer, but they do get excellent care when they are seen.

Our EDs are facing increased demand every day, and the shortage of GPs does place extra pressure on our waiting times in the less urgent categories. As part of my commitment to provide as much Government information as possible, I’ve released a new Emergency Department Report Card http://www.health.act.gov.au/reportswhich tracks the Health Directorate’s performance.

The August Report Card shows solid improvements in performance by the Canberra Hospital ED with more patients seen within the targeted timeframes across all categories. Importantly, if you arrive at the ED extremely ill and in urgent need of care, you will be seen immediately.

Elective surgery is another area that gets frequent media attention but again, simplistic measures and Liberals scaremongering hide real progress on elective surgery and do nothing to engender confidence in our health system and our health professionals.

Last financial year, the ACT did 16% more elective surgeries than the previous year. The national average was just 2.8%. We have sustained that growth in surgeries over the past four years at an average of 5% which is almost double the national average. The number of people waiting longer than standard waiting times has fallen by more than one third during 2010-11, our waiting list has seen a 20 percent reduction and we’ve managed to deliver a 45% reduction in the number of long wait patients. Through sustained efforts, the median waiting time for the first four months of this financial year stands at 57 days – down from 76 in 2010-11. While there’s still more work to be done, our staff should be congratulated rather than criticised at every opportunity.

It is also important to understand that the median waiting time does not measure apples with apples. I’ve been arguing for some time that we need to come up with a nationally consistent way of measuring performance.

Here in the ACT our system is transparent. We start measuring waiting times as soon as people go on the waiting list, not when a patient gets a date for surgery as they do in some states. This disadvantages us but it is a higher standard. The chances however of any other state adopting our system is slim as it would make their median waiting times look bad.

Let’s not forget that while elective surgery and emergency department performance are very important, we provide hundreds of thousands of occasions of service across our two hospitals and health services every day – for example, cancer treatment, maternity services, emergency surgery, and treatment for a wide range of illnesses that don’t necessarily require surgery. And when you look at similar hospitals across the country, Canberra Hospital’s performance is comparable and in many areas better.

I think it’s time we thanked our dedicated staff for their efforts and recognised their achievements rather than trying to score cheap political points.