Patients at NSW hospitals claim investigators at the state’s health watchdog are ignoring complaints about substandard hospital care, following an ABC investigation into the agency.
- The Health Care Complaints Commission investigates public healthcare across the state
- A number of patients have spoken to the ABC about problems with the complaints process
- NSW Health said it would asses if measures were needed to improve the HCCC, following the ABC investigation
In complaints lodged to the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC), one patient, who spoke to the ABC on the basis of anonymity, claimed he had a panic attack after being bullied into being discharged from hospital.
The HCCC declined to investigate.
Another patient claimed she missed taking vital medications during her stay at hospital because nurses would not give them to her.
In her case the HCCC said “proactive steps” or a “direct apology” offered by hospitals in response to the issues raised meant “no further action is warranted”.
After an almost six-month wait for a response, both patients told the ABC they were disappointed with the HCCC’s performance, with one describing the watchdog as “incompetent and insensitive”.
It comes as a HCCC whistleblower told the ABC a “dysfunctional workplace culture” in recent years has triggered an exodus of senior staff.
The whistleblower also told the ABC that serious complaints were not investigated, including cases when ill patients were refused treatment in emergency departments.
The claims have sparked Health Minister Brad Hazzard into action, with a spokeswoman confirming NSW Health would work with the HCCC to determine if measures were needed to “improve the complaints handling processes”.
The ministerial intervention follows an ABC report exposing allegations the watchdog repeatedly mishandled complaints, with official statistics showing it failed to meet its statutory deadlines on hundreds of cases last year.
Since then, several more patients have approached the ABC to echo concerns.
Sent home from emergency ward
Stan* is an aged pensioner with a chronic lung disease, who was last year rushed by ambulance to a regional hospital with “acute breathing difficulties”.
He was diagnosed with a viral infection and placed on oxygen to assist his breathing.
He said a doctor advised him that a respiratory specialist was not available.
Early the next day he was discharged by a registrar, who told him to organise his own oxygen supply and arrange a community nurse through his GP.
Stan, a former public servant, said he was still unable to breath freely but felt “bullied into accepting a discharge”.
“I held grave fears for my health,” he said.
“I had a panic attack just thinking about managing the four flights of stairs to our unit.”
Stan* said he felt “somewhat helpless” in dealing with the HCCC bureaucracy. (ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)
A few days later, still waiting for his oxygen supply to arrive, Stan said his breathing worsened and he returned to hospital where he was diagnosed with a severe bacterial infection.
After a slow recovery, he complained to the HCCC, alleging a misdiagnosis and an inappropriate discharge.
After an almost six-month wait he received a letter that noted one doctor had apologised for “lacking in empathy”, but that his care was “appropriate”, and an investigation was not warranted.
Stan said although he was “angry at the outcome” he did not appeal as he “felt somewhat helpless” in dealing with the HCCC bureaucracy, which he described as “incompetent and insensitive”.
An HCCC spokesperson suggested Stan submit a written request for a case review.
No medication during hospital visit
Monica Jones, a patient in a private hospital ward, said nursing staff failed to provide her with GP-prescribed medication after her hysterectomy.
She said nausea and hallucinations caused by opiates left her “completely out of this world” and unaware that prescription tablets she regularly took had been placed by staff in a bedside drawer.
“I missed four days of diabetic type 2 medication, reflux (pills), which would have stopped me vomiting,” she said.
“And I was on a high dose of anti-depressants, without them I went downhill.”
Mrs Jones, an aged pensioner, said she complained to staff, who told her she was expected to dose herself with the medication.
“I have been in many hospitals and I’ve taken my anti-depressants in and they’ve usually been locked up in a little safe in the room.
“Never ever have I been told to just take them myself,” she said.
After discharge, Mrs Jones complained to the HCCC, which referred her case back to the hospital.
In a letter, the hospital apologised that “patient experience was not positive” and promised to review staff training and procedures.
Mrs Jones appealed to the HCCC to investigate. After six months, it sent her a letter declining to take further action as the hospital’s response was “considered appropriate”.
Mrs Jones believed her case showed the HCCC is failing to do its job.
“The agency is a non-event.” she said. “The Premier and the Health Minister need to take action on it.
“Because the people in New South Wales are not getting the care that they need. Particularly people in private hospitals. They’re just ignored.”
*This name has been changed at the patient’s request to protect privacy.