The Health Care Complaints Commission (NSW) (HCCC) recently released its 2015-16 annual report. During this period, there was a marked increase in the number of complaints received, assessed, referred for investigation, and referred for prosecution by the HCCC on previous years. Additionally the number of inquiries made by members of the public to the HCCC increased, when compared against the same period last year.

In this eBulletin, we summarise some of the key statistics and findings in the HCCC's annual report.

What is the Health Care Complaints Commission?

The Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) is a government body charged with protecting and regulating public health and safety by dealing with complaints about health professionals and service providers in New South Wales. Complaints are received and assessed, and may be referred to investigation and/or prosecution.

Key findings

In its 2015-16 annual report, the HCCC indicated there was an increase of approximately 15-25% across the board in relation to complaints received, assessed, and resolved, and investigations and legal matters finalised. Some key reasons for these increases, as referred to in the report, include:

  • substandard practices in unlicensed facilities;
  • issues in relation to infection control in dental surgeries; and
  • illegal prescription of drugs by pharmacists.

Profile of complaints

Health practitioners

The HCCC received 3,915 complaints about individual health practitioners in 2015-16, representing an increase of 14% on 2014-15 numbers. Of note:

  • 2134 complaints related to medical practitioners, with the most significant increases in general medicine (nearly 40%),1 mental health care, and emergency medicine.
  • There was a 55% increase in complaints about dental practitioners, however, this was largely attributable to one person making 143 separate complaints about an aspect of dental practices' websites.
  • Whilst there was a slight decrease in pharmacist complaints in 2015-16 compared with 2014-15, the 197 complaints received represented an 18% increase from 2013-14 numbers.
  • Complaints about psychologists increased almost 20%.

Health organisations

In 2015-16, the HCCC received 2,160 complaints about health organisations, an increase of nearly 20%. 43% of these complaints related to public hospitals, a decrease from 48% in 2014-15. Notably, complaints about general medicine at public hospitals doubled.2 Private hospitals also saw an increase of 13% in 2015-16.

Issues raised in complaints

Whilst a complaint will often raise a variety of issues, the most common complaint categories related to lack of treatment (42%) and communication (17%).

Complaints about treatment tended to be in relation to inadequate treatment, unexpected outcomes, and diagnoses, whereas complaints about communication related to concerns about the attitudes of the health practitioner and inadequate and misleading advice.

Treatment issues were most prominent in complaints about medical and dental practitioners, accounting for nearly 50% of all complaints received against such practitioners by the HCCC in 2015-16. Pharmacists attracted a higher proportion of complaints in relation to professional conduct and illegal practices and breach of guidelines, accounting for 42% of complaints received against pharmacists.

Similarly, treatment issues accounted for 54% of complaints made about public hospitals and 43% of complaints made about private hospitals.

Key drivers

The HCCC 2015-16 annual report indicates a significant escalation in health related complaints, which is consistent with the position across Australia. Potential reasons are:

  • patients are taking a more active interest in their health, resulting in higher expectations when it comes to health practitioners and service providers;
  • increased developments in health technology may result in access to further testing and, in turn, potential for further complaints;
  • increased traditional and social media scrutiny of the health industry, particularly in light of high profile coronial inquests and health inquiries; and
  • the increasing prominence of independent regulatory bodies such as the HCCC.