Federal Politics


Waiting times don't give full picture of health service

The recent media focus on waiting times at Canberra's hospitals (''Auditors comb hospital data'', April 25, p1) is something of a furphy. As the former manager of media and marketing for ACT Health, I witnessed time and again the political shenanigans that went on over waiting times. Then, as now, there was little analysis or discussion about the bigger picture - which is the quality of the health service delivered, not how long a person waits.

I was aware of cases where people assessed by triage as Category Two or Three waited for longer periods than the designated timeframe for treatment. Sometimes this was because the patient was under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs and an anaesthetic could endanger their health. At other times, people airlifted in by emergency helicopter for life-saving operations or those involved in critical accidents meant patients assessed as less urgent were forced to wait. That is how triage works.

Statistics don't record why someone wasn't treated in the allotted time, they only record a numerical value, not an explanation. Waiting time statistics do not necessarily tell us if (or when) a patient returned to an emergency department, or whether they experienced mental health and physical health problems that required complex healthcare, or whether their treatment and recovery was successful. Waiting times are just one measure of the efficiency of a health system. We do not measure our GPs by how long we spend in their waiting room. Nobody likes waiting for treatment or healthcare; however, to judge Canberra's hospital system on waiting times may create a situation where patients are inappropriately rushed in for treatment to satisfy the politics of the day.

Comparatively, Canberrans have access to one of Australia's best health systems. It is the envy of many around the world. Not perfect, not free from clinical or administrative errors, but nevertheless a world-class health and hospital system.

We need to move on from this obsession with how long people wait in emergency departments and focus on issues such as treatment, recovery and the quality of health care provided for people with physical and mental health problems.

Simon Tatz, Curtin


I think that the Canberra Hospital senior bureaucrat who fudged figures is a hero (''Auditors comb hospital data'', April 25, p1). The policy of hospital grants based on ''performance indicators'' is deeply flawed.

Assuming that administrators and emergency staff are not lazy or incompetent and do their best under extremely trying conditions, there are two ways to improve performance indicators: rush patients through emergency at the cost of patient treatment, either in emergency or other parts of the hospital, or ''massage'' figures. The latter option wins the money, with which more emergency staff could be employed, and the ''performance indicators'' correct themselves. The bureaucrat, who feared he/she saw extra funds disappearing down a rabbit hole, took necessary steps and is condemned by all those who can see the flaws in the system but remain politically correct.

Donna Stewart, Reid

I am not surprised that statistics for the Canberra Hospital Emergency Department have been put into question recently. When I was suffering from an agonising condition (urinary retention) in 2010, I had to wait nearly three hours for treatment, although this condition is classified as a medical emergency. I was offered no pain relief, despite many pleas for help. My wife, who waited with me, was very distressed by my agony.

When I complained to the director of nursing, Kate Jackson, I was told in writing that I had only waited for an hour and 40 minutes. This was contradicted by Dr Hollis, head of the Emergency Department, who conceded that I had waited nearly three hours.

If senior staff can't agree on wait times, how can I be expected to trust their figures ?

David Roth, Kambah

Conservatives meet

It was good to see an intelligent discussion between Nick Minchin and Anna Rose on climate change on Thursday evening (ABC1, I can change your mind about climate).

It was inspiring to see they were trying to find common ground.

Social conservatives are about slow and gradual political change, as they believe our world is a complex place with many intricate interactions which should be allowed to evolve gradually.

Environmental conservatives believe the biosphere is complex with many intricate interactions, and so should not be subject to sudden change or disruption.

In the past century greenhouse gases have increased 40 per cent, global forest cover has reduced by 50 per cent, and many fisheries have declined dramatically, which are large disruptions to our previously stable environment and causing great concern to many. So it is time the Greens and Liberal Party shook hands, sat down, and started talking about their shared conservative ideals.

Stuart Walkley, Lyneham

Nick Minchin, on the ABC program I can change your mind about climate , pondered his way from one dot to another. Dot A was that we need to use renewable energy. Dot B was that we need incentives to encourage this move. Dot C was that the market should make the moves. The bit the eluded him was that the carbon price is the line joining those dots.

It will provide the incentive for the market to move towards renewable energy by taxing big polluters while cushioning many of us during the change. Other nations are moving ahead of us towards a green economy. Julia Gillard and Christine Milne can join the dots but I doubt that many in the Liberal Party can. What a tragedy if, due to political accidents, we get a Liberal government run by people with nothing but vaguely moving spots before their eyes.

Rosemary Walters, Palmerston

Asian languages

Let us hope that Treasurer Wayne Swan responds to the call from Member for Fraser Andrew Leigh and Senator Lisa Singh (''The Asian century beckons'', April 25, p15), and in the May budget makes funds available for a continuation of the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program. Although the present $62 million in NALSSP funding over four years to increase opportunities for school students to become familiar with the four target languages and the cultures of our Asian neighbours will continue into 2013, I understand that the majority of NALSSP activities dried up in December 2011.

John Milne, Chapman

Imagine a choice

The exchange in the letters pages between ex-Labor Party apparatchik Vic Adams and Ric Hingee and Mike Crowther from the former Community Alliance Party got me thinking about a left-wing alternative to the neoliberalism of the ALP and the Liberals and their accomplices, the Greens.

Re-reading the article by Noel Towell and Lisa Cox (''Battle to win the capital'', April 21, pB1) and the conservative offerings from the ALP, the Liberals and the Greens reinforced in my mind the gap between the rhetoric of these three parties of conservatism and the desire of a section, at least, of the community for left-wing, people-oriented policies and actions.

In Britain, former Labour MP George Galloway won the Bradford West by-election for the left-wing Respect Party with a swing against Labour of more than 36 per cent. He stood on opposition to austerity and the war in Afghanistan. In France Jean-Luc Melenchon won more than 11 per cent of the presidential vote on a radical left-wing program. His proposals included taxing income greater than 360,000 euros at 100 per cent, increasing the minimum wage by 20 per cent, returning the pension age to 60, employing more public servants to reduce unemployment and provide much needed services to the French people, withdrawing immediately from Afghanistan and NATO and protecting and celebrating immigrants.

There might be scope for a left-wing alternative at the forthcoming elections in the ACT instead of the battle between tweedledum and tweedledumber. Imagine, for example, a candidate who supported real wage increases for ACT public servants, who wanted to employ many more nurses and teachers on the best salaries in Australia, and who argued for a tax system that soaked the rich till their pips squeaked.

Imagine a candidate whose office would become a campaign centre for all those workers fighting for better wages and conditions, for jobs, against the Australian Building and Construction Commission, in other words for workers and against the bosses and their parties, Labor and the Liberals. Unfortunately at this stage ''imagine'' remains a great John Lennon song.

John Passant, Kambah

Greece's defence

The Guardian Weekly reports that Greece's financial state is partly due to years of splurging on defence (''German hypocrisy over Greek military bills''; April 27, p5). Spending on Greek citizens is slashed while the country pays Germany a billion euros still owing on three submarines which it did not need, and were faulty to boot. Greece has been the biggest European arms customer of Germany (15 per cent of all sales) and of France (10 per cent). If the Germans didn't help Greece now, then they wouldn't get their blood money, would they?

Perhaps the state of Greece is due not so much to forms of bludging - like early retirement and tax evasion - as to the international arms industry and the scaremongering that supports it. Perhaps it's just what happens when a financial crisis strikes midway through an arms procurement cycle.

As an aside, it's kind of funny to think what France would to with Greece if Marine le Pen achieved power. She'd want to have her cake and eat it too, wouldn't she?

S. W. Davey, Torrens