How Australia runs its hospital wards

January 21, 2010

By Tahlia Maslin
Policy Intern
Frontier Centre for Public Policy

Thalia Maslin
Thalia Maslin

WINNIPEG, MB, Jan. 21, 2010/ — As provincial governments across Canada grapple with how to rein in budgets and more effectively spend the money they allocate to health care, they might look south for the answer: No, not to the United States, but much further south, to Australia. Its government has moved to more transparent and accountable health care.

A good example of more transparency is how efforts are being made, at the Australian state level (and the national level in other countries), to collect standardized data across hospitals to help doctors and patients more quickly choose the right hospital for treatment.

The reason for this initiative is no mystery: One Wisconsin study, from 2003, suggested that making performance information public stimulates quality improvements, while a 1996 Illinois study found that how wait times are handled can also make a difference in hospital satisfaction scores. This latter report on emergency departments found that providing information, and managing waiting time perceptions and expectations, may be a more effective strategy to achieving improved patient satisfaction than decreasing actual waiting time.

Hospitals can also manage wait times by using online hospital performance reports to assist patients in non-critical conditions to choose which hospital to visit to receive the quickest care, as well as which emergency rooms might be their best available option. While online reporting gives patients greater choice, it also allows hospitals to run more efficiently.

For example, the Western Australian state government provides information on all emergency department admissions, attendances, wait times, the number of patients waiting to be seen, ambulance bypass, and hospital bed availability across the various metropolitan hospitals. People can log on to the internet and see waiting times in a quick and easy manner.

Similarly, several hospitals in the U.S, and some Canadian hospitals such as Ontario’s Kemptville District Hospital, have already developed real-time wait clocks on their website. Ontario has also set targets for reducing the total amount of time patients spend in emergency rooms and is publicly posting data about local emergency wards online. (Ontarians can visit www.ontariowaittimes.com to access information about their local emergency rooms.) However, to be truly effective, all the hospitals in a metropolitan location need to have their waiting times displayed in real-time to allow patients to choose the quickest and most convenient option.

Collecting and reporting emergency department wait times will help monitor progress in improving emergency department performance, which is a benefit for hospitals and prospective patients alike. An online reporting system would increase efficiencies in the health system, and promote greater transparency and accountability as well as creating a higher level of patient satisfaction.

With hospital expenditures continuing to increase along with waiting times, giving patients timely and reliable information could be one cost-effective way of ultimately reducing the burden on hospitals and promoting the most efficient use of resources. If one emergency room is full, while another is nearly empty, it is not difficult to see the inefficiencies caused and the potential to not only save money, but save lives through a better system of distributing patients.

Tahlia Maslin, a policy intern at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (www.fcpp.org) is from Australia.

Channels: The New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, January 22, Calgary Beacon, January 23, the Flin Flon Reminder, January 23, the Prince Rupert Daily News, February 1, the Victoria Star, the Windsor Star, February 3, Indo-Canadian Voice, February 4, Vegreville Observer, February 5, 2010

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