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Open Access Research article

What happens to coroners’ recommendations for improving public health and safety? Organisational responses under a mandatory response regime in Victoria, Australia

Georgina Sutherland1, Celia Kemp1, Lyndal Bugeja2, Graham Sewell3, Jane Pirkis1 and David M Studdert4*

Author Affiliations

1 Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC, Australia

2 Coroners Court of Victoria, 222 Exhibition St, Melbourne, VIC, Australia

3 Department of Management and Marketing, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC, Australia

4 Stanford University School of Medicine and Stanford Law School, Stanford, CA, USA

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BMC Public Health 2014, 14:732  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-732

Published: 18 July 2014

Abstract

Background

Several countries of the British Commonwealth, including Australia and the United Kingdom, vest in coroners the power to issue recommendations for protecting public health and safety. Little is known about whether and how organisations that receive recommendations act on them. Concerns that recommendations are frequently ignored prompted the government of Victoria, Australia, to introduce a requirement in 2008 compelling organisations that receive recommendations to provide a written statement of action.

Methods

We conducted a prospective study of organisations that received recommendations from Victorian coroners over a 33-month period. Using an online survey, we asked representatives of "recipient organisations" what action (if any) their organisations took, and what factors influenced their decision. We also probed views of the quality of the recommendations and the mandatory response regime in general. Responses were analysed at the recommendation- and recipient organisation-level by calculating counts and proportions and using chi-square analyses to test for sub-group differences.

Results

Ninety of 153 recipient organisations surveyed responded (59% response rate); they received 164 recommendations (mean = 1.9; range, 1–7) from 74 cases. A total of 37% (60/164) of the recommendations were accepted and implemented, 27% (45/164) were rejected, and for 36% (59/164) the recommended action was "supplanted" (i.e., action had already been taken). In nearly half of rejected recommendations (18/45), recipient organisations indicated implementation was not logistically viable. In half of supplanted recommendations, an internal investigation had prompted the action. Three quarters (67/90) of recipient organisations believed the introduction of a mandatory response regime was a good idea, but fewer regarded the recommendations they received as appropriate (52/90) or likely to be effective in preventing death and injury (45/90).

Conclusions

Only a third of coroners’ recommendations were implemented by the organisations to which they were directed. In drawing policy lessons, it is important to separate recommendations that were rejected from those in which action had already been taken. Rejected recommendations raise questions about the quality of the recommendations, the reasonableness of the organisation’s response, or both. Supplanted recommendations focus attention on the adequacy of consultation between coroners and affected organisations and the length of time it takes for recommendations to be issued.

Keywords:
Coroner; Recommendations; Public health; Organisations; Survey