Health Minister Greg Hunt told a Canberra press conference that “approximately 60% of those that have agonisingly passed [from COVID-19] have been in palliative care”.
Politicians, including the prime minister, repeated the claim in the following days.
But there is a growing chorus of voices questioning the statistic, and asking to see its provenance.
In an interview with ABC Radio National, Professor Joseph Ibrahim, Head of Health Law and Ageing Research at Monash University, said the number “doesn’t make sense” and he would like to see the figure substantiated.
He said politicians are using data to “obfuscate” the true picture of what is happening in aged care.
“I just don’t believe the number he’s giving us,” Professor Ibrahim said.
Aged care advocate Sarah Holland-Batt tweeted it was “literally unbelievable” the government knows the proportion of residents who have died with COVID-19 while receiving palliative care, but it can’t tell the public how many residents have received their booster shot.
What does the data tell us?
According to data from the Department of Health, about 60% of aged care deaths from COVID-19 have occurred in those aged 80 and over.
Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare [AIHW] shows that in 2019-2020, only 1.3% of aged care residents were assessed as needing palliative care in their Aged Care Funding Instrument [ACFI] appraisal.
However, the need for palliative care increases with age.
For those aged under 70, only 10% were assessed as needing end-of-life care, but for those aged 85 and older, about 55% were assessed as needing palliative care.
However, the AIHW report notes there are “limitations” when it comes to using ACFI claims to assess palliative care use in residential aged care.
In other words, the actual number of people requiring palliative care is commonly higher than the ACFI assessed need – which does go some way to supporting the Minister’s claim.
So, while these statistics do go some way to supporting the Minister’s statement, they are far from conclusive proof.
If the minister wants to be believed he should explain the 60% figure.
The government’s management of the aged care crisis is shaping up to be one of the key issues of the upcoming election, and will be an indicator of the government’s overall ability to manage the pandemic response.
If the government can’t substantiate its data when questioned, there will continue to be questions about its ability and credibility.
And once the Minister has substantiated the claim, he might be able to find out how many residents have had their booster shots.
A statement issued to HelloCare from the Department of Health said, “Data received by the Department indicates around 60% of aged care residents who passed away with COVID-19 were palliative at the time of their COVID diagnosis.”