The Public Health (Infection Control) Amendment Bill 2017 (the Bill) was introduced into the Queensland Parliament on 21 March 2017 by the Minister for Health, the Honourable Cameron Dick MP.
On 23 May 2017, the Bill passed through Parliament without amendment. The Bill will be enacted into law upon receiving Royal Assent.
The Bill has come to fruition following an incident in December 2016 which forced Queensland Health to shut down a Brisbane dental clinic, Gap Free Smiles at Carina, after investigations raised concerns about inadequate infection control standards.
The Bill seeks to amend the Public Health Act 2005 (the Act) to strengthen the statutory infection control framework for health care facilities (HCFs), such as public hospitals, medical and dental practices and blood banks.
Current law in Queensland
Due to the inherent risk of patients and staff coming into contact with infectious blood-borne diseases like hepatitis and HIV, the Act already requires HCF staff to take reasonable precautions and care to minimise infection risks.
The Act also requires HCF operators to develop, implement and regularly review plans showing how infection risks are minimised, known as Infection Control Management Plans (ICMP).
However, the current framework is not directly enforceable, with no penalties for non-compliance and no specific power to order HCFs to take particular remedial action.
In the incident described above, Queensland Health had no option but to seek the cooperation of the Brisbane City Council to issue a public health order temporarily closing the dental clinic until remedial measures were implemented.
The Amendment Bill
The Bill proposes to better protect HCF staff and patients from the risk of exposure to infectious conditions by improving the current infection control framework. A key focus of the Bill is on minimising emergent infection risks rather than responding to incidents after they have occurred.
In summary, the Bill provides for the following:
- Enhancement of Queensland Health’s ability to monitor compliance with the framework and investigate possible breaches.
- Authorised persons will be able to direct HCF operators to provide or amend their ICMP, supported by penalties for non-compliance.
- Authorised persons may enter HCF’s without notice to control an imminent infection risk (subject to existing limitations involving warrants).
- Authorised persons may issue an improvement notice to take appropriate remedial action or (in serious situations) a directions notice which requires a HCF to temporarily cease providing particular services until remedial action is undertaken.
- The creation of penalties for breach of statutory obligations by HCF operators. A failure to take reasonable precautions and care to prevent infection risks is punishable by maximum penalties of between $121,000 and $365,700.
How will it affect hospitals and medical practitioners?
Submissions to the Committee regarding the proposed amendments can be viewed here. Submissions were made by:
- Queensland Nurses and Midwives’ Union;
- Gold Coast Health Insurance Commission The Dental Hygienists Association of Australia Ltd;
- Australian Dental Association Queensland;
- Australian Medical Association Queensland; and
- Australian Lawyers Alliance.
Industry groups and members of health professions registered under the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (Queensland) and the relevant National Boards will be asked to disseminate information to their members and registrants.
Training, competency and practice standards are to be prescribed under the proposed amendments in order to support HCF operators in understanding their statutory obligations.
However, HCF operators and staff would be well placed to understand the proposed changes and, in any event, review their infection control framework.