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Hospital in crisis: MP

Thursday, 1st April, 2010

* MP John Williams. * MP John Williams.

By Andrew Robertson

Staff shortages in allied health services at the hospital are at crisis point, according to MP John Williams, who has described it as the "forgotten" hospital.

The Member for Murray-Darling's comments came after he met with remote cluster manager Rod Wyber-Hughes on Tuesday to discuss service and staff levels. Mr Williams said he asked for the meeting because residents had raised "a variety of concerns" with him about the health service over the past 12 months.

He estimated about 20 people had contacted his office in the past year with complaints or concerns, and that was likely just the "tip of the iceberg". "I've had a lot of issues with constituents not being able to get into see specialists," he said.

Mr Williams said Mr Wyber-Hughes was "open about the fact that delivering specialists services remains a major problem." He was told that patients were waiting for up to eight months to receive oncology, endocrinology and genetic counselling services.

The situation had now reached "crisis point", according to Mr Williams, with the physiotherapy department no longer able to accept referrals or hydrotherapy treatment. He said there was now one senior physiotherapist and two junior physiotherapists employed at hospital. At the same time just one allied health position has been advertised for Broken Hill in the past 13 months, which Mr Williams said was forcing locals to travel to Adelaide or Mildura for basic treatment.

"This staff shortage is due to the lengthy process of recruitment as all positions must be approved by the NSW Health and if they are not approved, they can not be advertised, even if the position is vacant," he said. "Bathurst Hospital has three times the physiotherapists that Broken Hill does, yet the population is not phenomenally higher, and it is only a 40-minute drive to Orange." The MP accused NSW Health and the Greater Western Area Health Service of neglecting patients in the far west.

"We're at the end of the chain here, we're far enough away to be forgotten." He criticised the GWAHS's reliance on agency staff."Using specialists and staff on a temporary basis is a very expensive exercise."They're throwing money at temporary solutions that could be solved permanently." Mr Wyber-Hughes said while the health service tried to minimise its use of agency staff, some services would have to close if they were not used.

"It's a bit of a double-edged sword," he said. "If we do recruit and we don't get applications we are forced to get agency staff (to keep services open)." He said renal dialysis was one of the services that relied on agency staff, as renal-trained nurses were in short supply. Mr Wyber-Hughes said the hospital was always trying to find better ways to use staff in order to maintain services which were stretched to the limit.

"We're keeping everything open but it's a very tight service horizon." He said the hospital had recently filled a number of vacancies after securing an occupational therapist, dietitian and pediatric physiotherapist. Ten Assistants in Nursing positions had also been filled, which he said would "free-up" nurses to focus on the clinical aspects of care.

Negotiations have also taken place with the GWAHS in relation to a reasonable workload for staff. "We've settled on a formula that will be an improvement on what we've got." A lack of private providers was also placing pressure on the hospital's resources, according to Mr Wyber-Hughes. "The health service provides all of the services in town, there are no private providers.

"We were never set up to provide everything." The hospital was also in negotiations with the Royal Adelaide Hospital to "formalise an agreement" between the two.

Mr Wyber-Hughes said the agreement would allow it to "plug in" to the Royal Adelaide network and get access to visiting specialists.

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