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The Tasmanian hospital fiasco

By Jeff Richardson - posted Tuesday, 14 August 2007

From the point of view of health and the health care system, the Prime Minister’s intervention in the Mersey Hospital in Tasmania is, at best, ill advised and, at worst, calamitous for Tasmanians and, potentially, for other Australians. It will almost certainly result in the death of northwest Tasmanians.

A large number of Australians die each year as a result of avoidable “adverse events”: mistakes which would not have occurred in a higher quality system. In 1995, the landmark “Quality of Australian Health Care Study” (Wilson, RM et al, Medical Journal of Australia, No 163, pages 458-471) estimated that at least 10 per cent of annual hospital admissions are associated with an adverse event. Up to 9,000 die unnecessarily each year and many more suffer some level of permanent disability. These are not primarily the fault of doctors (who make mistakes like all of us) but of systems which have not been properly designed to avoid errors and which force doctors to work in unsafe hospitals.

This was the main reason that the Expert Advisory Group which I chaired in 2004 recommended that one large, not two small hospitals in northwest Tasmania should provide comprehensive specialist services. This would allow the delivery of safe world class, not second class, specialist services.


The Prime Minister’s intervention will cement in place a system in which adverse events will flourish and in which Tasmanians will die unnecessarily.

There are two reasons for this. First, to provide a world class service it is necessary to have a minimum of three to five highly qualified specialists per specialty area and stable medical teams which work together over time. This is to avoid professional isolation and to allow the opportunity for rostering, holidays and, importantly, professional up-skilling - study leave and research.

Tasmania cannot attract specialists in these numbers. The reason is not primarily to do with money, but because first-class specialists seek to practise in Centres of Excellence and it is hard for Tasmania to achieve these, even in Hobart and Launceston. In fact, the extreme difficulty in attracting doctors to Tasmania was one of the main reasons for the enquiry which I chaired.

The second reason that the PM’s intervention is dangerous is even more intractable. The northwest of Tasmania has a population of 105,000. This is too small to provide two adequately sized teams of specialists with the clinical workload to keep their skills honed to world standards. One of the clearest relationships in medicine is that as surgeons’ workloads fall the death rate of their patients rises. The same is true for medical teams. When a team has not experienced complications for some time because their workload is low, they become partly de-skilled. When complications eventually do occur, more patients die than would be expected of a team with a higher workload.

The reasons for the impossibility of two Centres of Excellence in northwest Tasmania were explained to community groups in Burnie and Devonport. These reasons were distributed to all interested parties including medical associations, and were not challenged. And it is for these reasons that the Tasmanian President of the AMA, Professor Haydn Walters, described the PM’s intervention as “highly destructive and ... quite stupid”.

In principle, the difficulty in attracting specialists could be tackled by “bussing in” specialists from elsewhere in Australia. But if they were taken from Launceston and Hobart the quality of care for all Tasmanians will be jeopardised. Alternatively, specialists could be provided to the Mersey under the Medical Specialist Outreach Assistance Program (MSOAP), which assists with the provision of part-time practitioners to “areas of need”.


However, Devonport is not an area of need. Under the Tasmanian State Government’s plan, the Devonport community would have access to most services at the Mersey and easy access to specialist services at a Centre of Excellence in Burnie. Access to such services, under this plan, would be better than for many Australians in outer city suburbs or rural and remote areas.

It is very questionable whether a world class facility with continuity of medical teams can be sustained by part-time doctors flown in from time to time. More importantly, if the Federal Government initiative succeeded in sustaining such a facility at Devonport, it would deny Burnie the patient numbers necessary to maintain the Centre of Excellence which is currently planned for the whole northwest of Tasmania. The best that could be hoped for would be the removal of Burnie’s specialist services - to prevent the erosion of their quality - and establishing a mirror image of the current plan: a Centre of Excellence in Devonport and the facilities now planned for Devonport transferred to Burnie.

But this makes no sense - Burnie has 90 per cent greater capacity than Devonport, particularly for complex cases.

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First published in New Matilda on August 8, 2007.

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About the Author

Professor Jeff Richardson was Chair of the Expert Advisory Group and 2004 Report, The Tasmanian Hospital System: Reforms for the 21st Century. He is Foundation Director of the Centre for Health Economics, Monash University and Adjunct Associate, at the Center for Health Policy/Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research at Stanford University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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