The Press Council has considered a complaint on behalf of Austin Hospital about two articles in The Age concerning the hospital’s waiting times and new booking system.
The first article was headed “Patients suffer for years” (print) and “Patients suffer for years in surgery queues, say GPs” (online) and published on 15 March 2014. It reported that a named patient’s GP had referred her to Austin Health for an outpatient appointment in May 2011 and her surgery occurred “almost 3 years later”, and it quoted the patient as saying “It’s a long time to wait for a new knee”.
The second was headed “Austin’s booking system brings grief to cancer sufferer” (print) and “Austin Hospital’s booking system brings grief to cancer sufferer” (online) and was published on 2 April 2014. It said a particular patient had been telephoned twice by a nurse asking why he did not attend an appointment for treatment, but he had not previously been told he needed treatment or had an appointment. It said the patient “believed the new booking system had caused the ‘appalling cock-ups’ and was letting hospital staff down".
Judith Troeth, Chairman of Austin Health which runs the hospital, complained that the first article was inaccurate and unfair. She said the named patient waited only eight months from the date on which the specialist recommended surgery, and that the wait was partly due to the patient’s decision to wait for a particular surgeon. She said the publication was informed to this effect shortly after the article appeared, but it had not published any correction.
The publication responded that the almost three-year wait mentioned in the article was from when the patient’s GP referred her to the specialist until the surgery took place. It said the article sought to show that the time patients were waiting for surgery was often much longer than the time they were on the official waiting list for surgery. It said that when approached by the hospital after the article appeared, it offered to re-investigate and publish a further article including the hospital’s version of events, but the hospital declined the offer.
Ms Troeth said the headlines of the second article unfairly and inaccurately stated as a fact that the hospital’s new booking system caused a miscommunication between it and a particular patient. She said the new system was not used on that occasion and the cause was actually human error.
The publication said the text of the article reported the hospital’s claim about the cause of miscommunication with the patient, but the headline could not reflect all versions and had focused on the patient’s view which the publication had no reason to doubt.
The Council’s relevant Standards of Practice state that reasonable steps should be taken to ensure reports are accurate and fair; serious inaccuracies should be corrected promptly; opinions should be readily distinguishable from facts; and headlines should reflect the tenor of the accompanying article.
The Council considers that the first article implied the knee replacement did not occur until more than three years after it was needed. In fact, it occurred only about eight months after the specialist recommended it and the patient was put on the waiting list for surgery. The operation could have been earlier if the patient had not wanted to wait for a particular surgeon.
The incorrect implication could have been avoided by checking with the hospital beforehand. Accordingly, the complaint about the first article is upheld on the ground of failure to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness.
The publication was obliged to publish a prompt correction, but the Council is not satisfied that the hospital promptly provided the publication with sufficient verification. Also, the hospital did not accept the offer of a follow-up article. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
The Council has concluded that, although the headline of the second article stated as a fact that the new booking system had caused the miscommunication between the hospital and a patient, the publication had not taken reasonable steps to ensure the statement was accurate and fair. The headline also failed to fairly reflect the tenor of the text of the article, in which the hospital’s differing version was mentioned at some length. Accordingly, the complaint against the headline of the second article is upheld on those grounds.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies part of three of the Council Standards of Practice as follows: General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.”; General Principle 2: “Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence.”; and General Principle 6: “Publications are free to advocate their own views and the by-lined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, [and] headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article...”