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Record Number Of Patients' Complaints Resolved

Record number of patients' complaints resolved
Annual report of the Health and Disability Commissioner

A record 1,338 complaints were resolved by the Health and Disability Commissioner in the year ending 30 June 2003, with a dramatic 35% reduction in the backlog of open files.

The annual report of the Health and Disability Commissioner notes there were 1,159 complaints in the 2002/2003 year (a 4 percent decrease on last year), with the majority of complaints coming from patients and relatives. Medical practitioners were the type of provider most often complained about (62 percent of complaints), although the total number of complaints against doctors has decreased by 34 percent over the past two years.

In the report Commissioner Ron Paterson calls on district health boards and professional groups to take more heed of consumer feedback as a way of improving both systems and services. "The voice of consumers has not been used effectively to improve health and disability services."

Mr Paterson says a decision by the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners to produce written guidelines on managing patient test results is a good example of learning from complaints. The College took this action following cases that highlighted a failure by GPs to follow up patient test results adequately.

The Commissioner calls for more open disclosure of adverse events by district health boards, commending public reporting by Waitemata and Canterbury District Health Boards. Mr Paterson also highlights the need for more information about healthcare quality to be made public. "New Zealand patients currently know more about comparative debt levels than quality in our public hospitals, and the time is right for much greater sharing of information."

Director of Advocacy Tania Thomas reports that advocates managed over 7,000 enquiries and 4,578 complaints and the vast majority of these were resolved with advocacy. Ms Thomas says achieving the best outcome for the consumer requires respect for, and working with, rather than against the people involved on the other side of the complaints process.

Director of Proceedings Morag McDowell reports she received 30 referrals from the Commissioner. Eleven disciplinary cases were taken and completed during the year.

Ms McDowell says one of the most topical and difficult issues has been interim name suppression for medical practitioners. The Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal is required to balance the public interest with the privacy interests of the medical practitioners.

"The public interest resides in open, transparent proceedings and freedom of speech."

Ms McDowell says the issue may require further judicial consideration in the future in light of a noticeable trend for interim suppression to be granted more often than not by the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal. In a recent ruling, one member of the Tribunal has suggested the Medical Practitioners Act 1995 should be interpreted to mean that interim name suppression must be granted in all cases prior to the actual hearing.

For a copy of the annual report go to


What is the aim of the Health and Disability Commissioner's Office? The HDC office was set up in 1994 as a result of Judge Cartwright's Report of the Cervical Cancer Inquiry (1988).

The Commissioner is required to investigate complaints (of alleged breaches of the Code of Health and Disability Services Consumers' Rights 1996), and to educate the public and health providers about consumers' rights.

What happens if a case is referred to the Director of Proceedings? The Director of Proceedings, Morag McDowell, is an independent statutory officer under the Act. The Director has responsibility for deciding whether to issue proceedings on matters referred by the Commissioner.

In deciding whether to take further proceedings, the Director is required to consider the public interest, the wishes of the complainant, and the provider's response.

The Director may bring disciplinary proceedings before health professional disciplinary bodies such as the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal or the Nursing Council, and/or a claim for damages before the Human Rights Review Tribunal.


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