Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital has been copping a media hammering for weeks now. Unfortunately, much of the coverage has been a missed opportunity. It’s time to give the RNSH a break, for the sake of our health.

Here’s a few reasons why:

1. We know that thousands of Australians die or suffer serious problems each year as a result of their health care. The single-minded focus on the RNSH distracts from the reality that unsafe or inappropriate care is a much wider problem. It also leaves the public with the idea that under-funding is the only cause of poor health care, which is far from the case. We need across-the-board measures for improving care rather than focusing so intently on problems at any one institution. The media’s narrow focus on the RNSH has also let off the hook other groups that should be held accountable. It’s remarkable that so little, if anything, has been heard from the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care during the entire saga. Yet it was the perfect opportunity for the Council to push for broader action to improve patient safety and care. Why isn’t the Council copping its share of media heat?

2. Our entire health system is biased towards ensuring better access to health services for the better off, despite them generally having better health. Children born in the well-to-do suburbs can generally expect to live longer than those born in the poorer urban fringes or country areas. There’s a huge opportunity cost to the media’s absorption in the problems of a hospital in Sydney’s privileged suburbs. We’re not hearing about the problems of areas which tend to be under-served by health services while having greater need for them – the metropolitan fringes and rural and remote areas, for example. Imagine what could be achieved for Indigenous health if Sydney media made the issue front-page or top of the news bulletin for weeks on end.

3. At a seminar at the University of Sydney last week, John Menadue, the former bureaucrat and businessman turned health reformer, described how media coverage of health is driven by powerful vested interests, including doctors and the pharmaceutical industry, rather than by the public’s interests. (You can hear the seminar here.) The squeaky wheels get the oil, he said, rather than the areas really deserving of political and public attention, such as primary care, mental health, and Indigenous health. A cynic might think that the RNSH “crisis” is in fact a dream opportunity for the hospital. The Minister and bureaucrats will be doing everything they can to keep the hospital out of the headlines. This is not the path to rational or fair health policy.

4. The focus on the RNSH reinforces the mistaken idea that better health relies on us having better hospitals. There is no doubt that public hospitals have suffered a terrible squeeze in recent years, and they need help in a whole range of ways to make them more effective, happier places. But more funding is only one part of the solution. And if we really want to improve our health, we need to stop talking so much about hospitals. Unfortunately, this message has yet to permeate the corridors of power, judging by the disappointing coverage of health in the federal election debate last night. Hospitals were the only aspect of health policy that rated a mention. How different it might have been, if the shortage of rural GPs or the shortcomings of mental health care had been dominating the front pages for weeks.