Doctors call for improvements to Health Ombudsman complaint timelines

Queensland’s peak body representing doctors is calling for more resources for the state’s Health Ombudsman, in a bid to resolve the office’s slow handling of complaints.

The state’s Office of the Health Ombudsman was established in 2013 to replace the much-criticised Health Quality and Complaints Commission, with statutory timeframes laid out for the new office to respond to complaints.

In 2016-17, the Ombudsman’s office responded to 61 per cent of complaints within its legislated time frame, up 32 per cent from the year previous.

However, in its state budget submission, the Australian Medical Association Queensland warned the Ombudsman’s office “has succumbed to the same inefficiencies and poor complaints management processes that drove the government to replace the HQCC”.

In October last year former Health Ombudsman Leon Atkinson-MacEwan was suspended over his response to a former Mater Hospital anaesthetic technician, who was charged with assault and fraud.

An independent investigation was launched into Mr Atkinson-MacEwan’s handling of the incident, with a final report yet to be completed.

Health Minister Steven Miles formally promoted Deputy Health Ombudsman Andrew

Brown to the top job in May 2018, saying Mr Brown would “continue to play a critical role in ensuring Queensland’s health sector was transparent, accountable and fair”.

Mr Brown is overseeing an organisation that saw a 17.9 per cent increase in complaints over the last quarter, compared with the same time last year.

In the Ombudsman’s annual report, tabled in September last year, Mr Atkinson-MacEwan acknowledged the unexpected increase in how many complaints the office handled yearly.

“The number and nature of these complaints far exceed the level of work envisaged in 2013 when planning for the new agency began,” Mr Atkinson-MacEwan wrote.

“The number and complexity of complaints, coupled with the significant underestimation of the resources required, meant that in our initial years, we struggled at times to meet legislated timeframes.”

Mr Atkinson-MacEwan argued that the 2016-17 statistics showed how far the office had come toward meeting their legislated requirements.

However, the AMA’s state budget submission claimed the Ombudsman’s $14 million operating budget was “insufficient”, as it overspent by $2 million across 2016-2017, and complaints were still being resolved too slowly.

“Our members have consistently raised the considerable delays in the OHO making decisions, even where the matter is simply trivial or vexatious,” the AMA submission reads.

“Given mandated timeframes were a key feature of the Health Ombudsman Bill 2013 (Queensland), they should be strictly followed and, if not, appropriate explanations must be given as to why not.”

The AMA is calling on the state government to introduce a joint consideration process between the Ombudsman, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency and the National Boards to improve the ombudsman’s problems in meeting statutory time-frames.

Arguing that such a move should help improve complaints resolution timeframes, the

AMA has also suggested the state government look at the ombudsman’s financial resourcing.

“These legislated timeframes … should be regarded sacrosanct,” the AMA submission reads.

“If the OHO is unable to meet these timeframes within the resources it currently has, this must be addressed to ensure complaints are resolved quickly and fairly.”

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This article was published and provided by the Brisbane Times.

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