To the Editor: Cunningham has shown that in Australian public hospitals patients identified as Indigenous are significantly less likely than other patients to have a principal procedure recorded.1
This finding is based on data collected by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare using the coding scheme of the International classification of diseases, 9th revision, clinical modification (ICD-9-CM). No information was available about the clinical indications for conducting a principal procedure. Despite this crucial omission, Cunningham speculates about the reasons for the disparity in the rate of procedures between Indigenous and non-Indigenous patients. These speculations include alarming suggestions such as the possibility of systematic discrimination against Indigenous patients of both an institutional and personal nature. She then concludes that "Work is urgently needed to characterise more fully the nature, level, sources and consequences of institutional and interpersonal discrimination so that we can reduce unfair treatment, ensure equitable care and improve outcomes for the most disadvantaged Australians".
These speculations and conclusions are simply unjustified by the data. In addition, such comments may cause more harm than good — Indigenous people have become extremely sensitive about medical and social research and may reject future investigations that are essential to their welfare.
There are reasons other than adverse discrimination which may explain the data. These include the common rejection by Indigenous patients of medical advice to have a procedure (they may well be adopting the wisest action), and their more frequent admission to hospital (rather than outpatient care), as they may have travelled from remote communities (ie, there are social criteria for admission without the need for medical procedures). Furthermore, the quality of the data must be questioned, as many Indigenous patients are admitted to hospitals where the data forms are completed by unskilled personnel who do not understand the meaning of a "principal procedure".
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