Exposed: Caboolture Hospital’s “Living Hell”

Shocking first-hand stories – and evidence – of alleged malpractice, negligence, refusal to answer pleas for information, botched operations and unnecessary or inappropriate procedures at Caboolture Hospital over the past few years were heard from patients and relatives at a Town Hall-style public forum in Caboolture on September 9.

Participants in the well-attended meeting didn’t hold back, despite often being in distress as they recounted the painful and often life-changing experiences they had endured – and in some cases will continue to suffer from. None of us present could fail to have been disturbed, and touched, by the opening disclosure from a mother whose life, in her own words, has been ruined by her treatment at Caboolture Hospital. She has so far undergone 11 further abdominal operations since a botched Caesarean there three years ago left her disfigured, in constant pain and facing more major surgery and an uncertain future.

Then there was the mother whose 48-year-old son had Down Syndrome and was admitted after a seizure. He returned home with broken bones, suffering PTSD and terrible nightmares. “He was so frightened, we had to turn the lights on,” she said. “Then he told us this person hit him in the head and stomach.” The hospital offered no explanation. Her son died six months later.

Several attendees who said they had “Just come to listen” were inspired to stand up and reveal their own personal experiences. We heard stories of a 90-year-old waiting hours for an ambulance after a fall, a Category 1 patient waiting 6 months for colonoscopy, and a pre-admittance patient being left alone in a waiting room for two hours.

Frustration with the hospital management’s point-blank refusal to listen to patients’ and relatives’ complaints or answer requests for further information was clearly in evidence, as was the courage it took to expose these deeply personal matters in public.

One issue on which the majority of those who spoke out agreed was that in most cases they had no complaints against the treatment and care given by frontline medical staff, nurses, orderlies and ambulance crews. It was evident that they were trying as hard as they could to do their jobs despite being under-staffed, under-resourced, overworked and burdened by the extra stresses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Caboolture forum was part of a statewide Health Crisis tour also visiting Cairns, Rockhampton, Caloundra, Redcliffe, Brisbane and the Gold Coast, hosted by LNP Opposition leader David Crisafulli and Shadow Health Minister Ros Bates. Federal member for Longman Terry Young also addressed the meeting and talked with constituents afterwards.

At the conclusion of the meeting, before speaking individually with some of the patients, Mr Crisafulli thanked the courageous locals who had spoken up and shared their distressing stories in the hope of fixing the health crisis, saying, “The [just announced] investigation into the horrific claims of alleged botched surgeries and abuse at Caboolture Hospital must be open and transparent. These honest people I met in Caboolture need answers.”

He promised the opposition would be vigorously pursuing the government for those answers – and demanding effective action be taken.

Shadow Health Minister Ros Bates, herself an experienced registered nurse and former hospital administrator, told The LOCAL News:

“These brave locals are going through a living hell after their experiences at Caboolture Hospital.

“Of all the forums we have held across Queensland, the Caboolture event was by far the most distressing.”

Claims Not New

It’s important to remember that claims of workplace cultural and administrative shortcomings at Caboolture have been simmering for many months. Even before these shock disclosures were made there had been a long and bitter parliamentary battle between the Health Minister and the Opposition on the administration of Queensland Health in general and Caboolture Hospital in particular. In days leading up to the Caboolture forum, Health Minister Yvette D'Ath had been forced to defend the hospital in parliament after staff whistle blowers went public with allegations including botched surgery and operations that resulted in deaths.

Asked if she could guarantee that all surgeries performed at the hospital were carried out by surgeons qualified to perform them, she replied that allegations about the hospital's surgical services were first raised with her in mid-July, which prompted her to seek advice from the hospital and Metro North Hospital and Health Service. Following this intervention Ms D’Ath said, "I can advise that each of those allegations was thoroughly investigated by the Caboolture Hospital's performance management committee.” But after receiving an “unsatisfactory” response to her own urgent inquiries into claims that a doctor had performed an operation outside their expertise she admitted she no longer had full confidence the hospital had properly investigated “very serious allegations”.

Later, the minister attacked the Opposition for framing the Caboolture situation as a "crisis", and said no evidence had yet been offered of any systemic flaws in the hospital system.

But David Crisafulli and Ros Bates continued to ask uncomfortable questions and finally, Metro North Health Board chair Jim McGowan announced an independent review of Caboolture Hospital surgical services, saying it was about "transparency and community confidence", and that it would consider the allegations that have been made, identify the effectiveness of the processes already in place, and make recommendations for further improvements if needed.

Really Jim? If needed? Isn’t it obvious they are, and have been for a long time?

In State Parliament, Ros Bates demanded the results of the review be publicly released. "It is incredibly disappointing that it's taken four days of sustained questioning and media reports for the government to act," she said in a statement.

Solutions Offered

The impact of worsening ambulance ramping (when a patient isn’t offloaded within the clinically-recommended time of 30 minutes) was also raised and addressed at length by David Crisafulli in Caboolture, and, coincidentally, a few days after the forum, the Auditor-General released a scathing report into Queensland’s emergency departments, appearing to vindicate and back the Opposition’s calls for critical improvements. With regard to set ramping targets the report states “this target has not been met at the statewide level in the past seven years.”

Furthermore, the report found “during the period from July 2020 to February 2021, only one of the top 26 reporting hospitals met the targets for both emergency length of stay and patient off-stretcher times.”

The Auditor-General’s report makes several recommendations, including real-time data sharing and giving more power to local hospital and health services. These are solutions already put forward by the Opposition, according to David Crisafulli.

“This is what we’ve been calling for to fix the worsening rate of ambulance ramping across the state,” he said.

“The LNP has repeatedly put solutions on the table – better triaging, more beds and the introduction of real-time data for emergency departments. It’s now up to the State Government to implement these vital measures and take real action to heal the Queensland Health crisis.”

Recommendations to give power back to frontline workers were also welcomed by Ros Bates, citing her own nursing and hospital administration experience.

“I know how frustrating it is for frontline staff to work under immense pressure with a lack of resources,” she said.

“That’s why we have repeatedly called for the state government to make Patient Care the top priority, not hiding data.”

“This damning report clearly shows ambulance ramping has been a chronic problem in Queensland years before the pandemic.”

Desire For Change

When the LNP was last in government, in November 2014, ambulance ramping at Caboolture Hospital was at 24%. Because the present government is unable to supply real-time data, unbelievably relying on quarterly updates, the latest available figure is for June 2021, when it had blown out to 38%.

David Crisafulli said, “We’ve put solutions on the table for the State Government to adopt, including real-time data monitoring, and all Queenslanders should be able to get this data daily, not quarterly. We need better resources for triaging and more funding on the frontline.”

On the issues facing Queensland Health and Caboolture Hospital in general, Mr Crisafulli told us, “What is clear, is a desire for change. Labor is losing control of the health system.”

While preparing this feature, The LOCAL News contacted Metro North Hospital and Health Service for comment and was told:

“Caboolture Hospital has rigorous safety and quality protocols in place, with patient care its utmost priority.”

Forgive us if we, and those patients we met at Caboolture, find this somewhat hard to believe.

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