Health Minister Meegan Fitzharris has announced an independent review into ACT Health's culture after months of pressure around bullying allegations.
The government has stopped short of implementing a full board of inquiry, as called for by the Canberra Liberals and the Australian Medical Association.
Despite labelling the call by the opposition health spokeswoman Vicki Dunne a political stunt just weeks ago, Ms Fitzharris denied Monday's announcement was a policy reversal. She said a royal commission wasn't warranted, and that the Canberra Liberals' call for one didn't acknowledge the work done to ensure the Canberra Hospital retained its accreditation.
"We have wonderful staff committed to delivering the best possible healthcare but there are problems that we do need to fix. The time has come for an independent assessment and analysis of culture and I announce that today," Ms Fitzharris said.
"I look forward to working with a number of stakeholders as I already have been, particularly over the coming week as I look to determine the final detail of that independent assessment."
The review will run alongside the restructure of ACT Health into two organisations, which is set to be implemented on October 1.
"This work must align – and it will – with the really important transition to two new organisations, that is really important and we continue to update staff, to keep them informed and engaged about this significant change for them," the minister said.
Just who will conduct the review is yet to be announced, but the minister said the government was talking to national figures who could be involved.
Ms Fitzharris said she wanted a report back in six months, with interim findings and recommendations in that time.
Earlier Monday, the peak body for doctors in the ACT called for the territory equivalent of a royal commission into the workplace culture of Canberra's health system, citing a "litany of missteps, maladministration, bullying complaints" over the past year.
Australian Medical Association ACT president Dr Antonio Di Dio said the shock resignation of new Health Services boss Janet Anderson three days after she was announced in the job "spoke of an organisation that cannot go a month without something going wrong".
The minister said she could "absolutely" assure health workers they wouldn't be disciplined or fired, or face extra bullying, if they came forward with evidence to the inquiry.
Unlike a board of inquiry, where those giving evidence are automatically privileged, the inquiry does not have the same built-in protection. Ms Fitzharris said the government was exploring a range of options to allow staff to give evidence, but didn't clarify what those options are.
"We have a number of different reviews that have previously been done that are currently underway that we are looking at. There is a broad range and we need to get one here that is not a witch hunt, that provides an avenue for staff to provide their stories, but also importantly it provides an avenue for learning and healing," Ms Fitzharris said.
"The independent review will make very clear that it is not a witch hunt. I am not interested in a witch hunt, I am interested in a healing process that understands some of the challenges that exist in the workplace culture."
Shadow health minister Vicki Dunne said said the independent review was more of the same.
"A watered down inquiry will not address critical and ongoing issues in the health system. It will not have the thrust that a board of inquiry with the powers of a royal commission would have. It will not offer protections for witnesses, and it will lack transparency and accountability," Mrs Dunne said.
Earlier on Monday Mrs Dunne labelled the call from the AMA "unprecedented" and nothing short of a board of inquiry would be enough.
The minister committed to publicly releasing the review and its outcomes, but it hasn't assuaged fears this review will end up the same way as an investigation into Canberra Hospital's maternity unit in 2010, when the report was never publicly released.
The AMA has welcomed the announcement, but ACT secretary Steve Robson said more detail was needed to make sure the community and health workers have confidence in the local health system.
"These are early days, and the Minister’s initial proposal for a closed-door inquiry does not yet satisfy that fundamental need," Professor Robson said.
Professor Robson said there was no basis in law to protect witnesses against reprisals and no indications that recommendations would be implemented. In a list of problems, the AMA stated there was no basis in law for the inquiry itself and no information about terms of reference, no indication of who would be involved and no guarantee of public hearings.
"The AMA membership [sic] seek a strong independent inquiry that encourages both community members and staff to come forward, to tell their stories and experiences, and be protected from reprisals. As well as holding public hearings, there should be the power to hear sensitive evidence in private."
It was important to avoid mistakes made in the past, Professor Robson said.
"The feedback we have had at the AMA reflects concerns about previous 'in-house' inquiries. Admittedly, well before Minister Fitzharris’ time, a similar 2010 inquiry into bullying was held in secret and undertaken by external reviewers selected by ACT Health. Neither the report nor the recommendations were ever made public, and many ACT Health staff tell us they felt cheated.”
Ms Fitzharris said she met AMA board members on Saturday night ahead of their call for a board of inquiry.
The minister also announced a clinical leadership forum, to advise her on health services planning and infrastructure, clinical culture and training and education.
Before the announcement Chief Minister Andrew Barr said he still had faith in Minister Fitzharris.
"Health is a tough portfolio, it's a difficult and challenging area to work in but the minister is working very hard and diligently in good faith with a wide variety of stakeholders - doctors, nurses, health professionals, health consumers, all of whom have an interest in an improvement in our health system which is already a very good health system but you can make it better," Mr Barr said.
The chief minister said a board of inquiry would involve spending tens of millions of dollars on a legal process that may not provide the reform needed, and the issues could be handled internally.
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