Markus Mannheim August 21, 2012
Canberra Hospital. Photo: Rohan Thomson
Canberrans wait longer, on average, than almost all other Australians to be treated in hospital.
But, once admitted, they're the least likely to acquire an infection on the ward.
They're also far less likely to need to return to hospital within a month, compared with NSW patients.
These results - indicators of how well our two main hospitals treat us - are buried in annual reports while debate focuses on waiting times.
Medical professionals have long argued that the obsession with queues clouds the healthcare debate, saying quality of care is at least as important and can be undermined by the need to ''get patients out quickly''.
The recent audit of data-doctoring at the Canberra Hospital's emergency department also found ACT Health focused too much on the number of patients seen, rather than whether their health improved.
Auditor-General Maxine Cooper said there was ''a considerable lack of attention on qualitative indicators, which may provide a more appropriate and rounded assessment of ... performance''.
However, a Canberra Times compilation of six years of data - the period Chief Minister Katy Gallagher has been Health Minister - shows our hospitals almost always meet their three main qualitative targets.
And while Australia-wide data isn't published for some of these indicators, the ACT fares well for those that are available.
Canberra patients, with those in Victoria, were the least likely in Australia to acquire a staph infection while in hospital in 2010-11, which is a measure of ward safety and hygiene.
Over the past six years in NSW, about 6 per cent of discharged patients needed to be re-admitted within 28 days, an indicator of inadequate treatment. Canberra Hospital's average re-admission rate over the same period is just 1.36 per cent, while Calvary's is 0.9 per cent.
ACT Health's head of strategy, Ian Thompson, said our hospitals had maintained their safety levels despite growing demand.
''We put a lot of time and attention into monitoring the safety and quality of care we provide. And we get good results, which are a result of that attention.''
Mr Thompson said improving the quality indicators was difficult, because our growing, ageing population meant patients presented with more complicated problems than in the past.
Also, patients who would once have been admitted to hospital are now more likely to be treated outside - which can make more recent data appear worse.
''So, for example, a surgical patient today who has a major trauma is more likely to require a return to surgery than in the past, not because of the quality of the surgery but the fact that they have very serious injuries,'' Mr Thompson said.
''What we're seeing over time is that the complexity of care and the level of acuity of care provided in our hospitals is increasing.''
Nonetheless, he believed Canberra's public hospitals could cut their lengthy waiting lists for emergency treatment and elective surgery.
He said the ACT government was increasing its hospitals' capacities, ''and that will assist, there's no question about it''.
''We need to balance this against our ability to recruit the workforce and staff to operate those facilities, but I think we'll still see a reduction in waiting lists.''
A recent Council of Australian Governments report on healthcare also praised ACT hospital staff, saying Canberra's patient satisfaction rates ''were significantly higher than the national rates for four measures: being listened to carefully and shown respect by [emergency department] doctors, being listened to carefully by hospital doctors, and given enough time by hospital nurses''.