Of the thousands of complaints to the NSW health watchdog in 2021, one unusual one relating to Covid-19 stood out.
A striking rise in complaints about the NSW healthcare system has called into question the complaint commission’s ability to inform government policy on crucial failures within the system, particularly in remote and regional communities.
NSW ministers who form the Committee on the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) posed questions to the commission chair Sue Dawson on Friday in relation to the 8702 complaints made to the commission in 2021.
Liberal MP Catherine Cusack drew attention to the parliamentary inquiry into rural health report released earlier this month.
The report revealed that a high proportion of professional conduct complaints were made in regional and rural areas, yet these results were not reflected in the low volume of complaints received by the HCCC.
“The report was a bombshell,” Ms Cusack said.
“I’m hearing, ‘My goodness, what’s going in health that’s driving such a big increase in complaints?’”
A prominent theme of Friday’s committee meeting was the low level of public awareness of the commission’s existence and functions.
Ms Dawson said the agency’s outreach programs were focused on communities where awareness might be low and comfort in making complaints was hindered by small-town relationships.
Ms Cusack honed in on the need for critical data on healthcare complaints to be made known to government organisations to allow them to glean detail on the absence of, or difficulty in accessing, services.
“That’s the sort of capability that we’re working on and we’re going to get the best out of our data and sit with the folks in health,” Ms Dawson said.
A complaint that came up “time and time again” was the lack of awareness of local health services in these communities due to poorly updated websites.
The implication being that people may feel tentative to report a service for fear that a provider may take it as a personal attack or the service may be withdrawn.
There were 653 complaints made to the commission in relation to Covid-19.
Issues with treatment arose in just 40 per cent of the complaints, with the majority being of a non-clinical nature.
These complaints ranged from wait times at testing stations, delays in receiving results, and concerns about a healthcare professional’s use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Complaints made about medical centres generally related to restriction of face-to-face consultations, telehealth appointment billing arrangements, PPE worn by staff and the availability of preferred vaccines.
The commission also noted several unusual complaints during the pandemic, including individuals complaining about wanting to “stay in the Hilton and not the Four Seasons”.
Liberal MP Tim James brought to the commission’s attention the issue of health misinformation during the pandemic and asked Ms Dawson what actions the commission was taking to address these risks.
“It’s difficult, it’s pervasive and it’s a nationwide problem,” she said.
In relation to the Therapeutic Goods Association, she said the agency did not anticipate the issue of misinformation being spread via political pamphlets into the letterboxes of Australians.
“They didn’t ever really contemplate the sort of misinformation of the nature that it’s been distributed in these pamphlets,” she said.
“I think that’s a regulatory problem that needs to be examined.”
Another focus of the committee meeting was the low representation of complaints from First Nations people.
“We weren’t seeing in our complaints a proportion we would have expected from First Nations people, knowing the difficulties they experience in the healthcare system,” Ms Dawson told the committee.
The commission established the role of First Nations engagement adviser to guide the commission in engaging with First Nations people, including more outreach programs to remote communities.
There was also a strikingly low rate of complaints made in relation to cosmetic surgery procedures.
Just one cosmetic surgery facility was investigated in 2021.