Unequipped and unsafe health facilities in the Murrumbidgee region, lack of funding and available services and minimal staffing leading to burnout have all been the focus of regional submissions to a NSW Upper House inquiry.
The inquiry got underway in Sydney on Monday and will consider 700 submissions, including those from Narrandera, Leeton, Murrumbidgee, Hay and Temora shire councils, and Can Assist Coleambally.
Narrandera Shire stated voluntary drivers were keeping the local health system ticking over by providing 4993 return trips to medical specialists for Narrandera and Leeton residents in the last financial year.
The trips to Wagga Wagga, Griffith, Canberra and Albury were for specialist services, dialysis, oncology, imaging, GP and surgical procedures.
Of the trips, 223 were for oncology only while 556 return trips were for rehabilitation services.
In a submission to the Inquiry into Health Outcomes and access to health and hospital services in rural, regional and remote NSW, Narrandera Shire general manager George Cowan said the community transport service compensated for a lack of ambulance services.
Mr Cowan said the response times for ambulances varied significantly and could be quite some time.
“If a patient lives in Narrandera and the responding ambulance has to come from an adjoining town, the patient may be better off transporting themselves to hospital via a family member rather than waiting for an ambulance,” he said.
“Local ambulances are spending considerable time transporting folk to Wagga as the local hospital becomes more and more a transfer station.”
Patient wait times and quality of care, staffing challenges, ambulance services and access to palliative care were all identified as core concerns in the submission.
Mr Cowan said many residents had raised concerns around access to health and hospital services.
“In Narrandera we are fortunate we have a local medical practice run by an experienced and competent GP who has been able to support the town by recruiting overseas trained doctors who are able to respond in the emergency department of the hospital to minor issues, under his guidance.
“The reality is however, throughout rural NSW hospital operating theatres stand unused, no babies are being delivered and regularly there is no doctor available to attend emergency wards.”
Mr Cowan said residents raised difficulties around accessing mental health services.
“These services are typically provided by specialists operating out of Albury or Wagga Wagga and or therapists located elsewhere across the Murrumbidgee Health District (but not based in Narrandera) usually via some form of mental health line,” he said.
“Most residents believe a locally based service would be more effective and more likely to be accessed by a person in need.”
Mr Cowan also raised the issue of access to quality therapy services for young people locally, particularly speech therapy.
He said the typical wait time was between 12 and 18 months after diagnosis.
Mr Cowan said the focus in Narrandera had moved from delivery babies to providing post-natal care for mother and baby at the hospital.
“Higher level health services provided in hospitals are based on the presence of a doctor and despite reassurances to the contrary, it is still virtually impossible to recruit Australian trained doctors into rural GP clinics and hospitals.
“Without the overseas trained doctors western NSW would have no doctors.
“Murrumbidgee Health received Federal Government approval for a trial involving the placement of registrar doctors in some of the region’s smaller hospitals, but we have not seen anything of that here in Narrandera.”
Another concern raised by residents was the waiting time to access home care after qualifying
Submissions to the inquiry closed on January 15 with a public hearing planned for southern NSW at Deniliquin on April 29.
Mr Cowan said the submission was available for viewing on the parliamentary website.
“There was a consistent theme of disappointment throughout the submissions I read.”
In their submission, Coleambally Can Assist stated there was a need for a mental health nurse/practitioner to help with anxiety and poor health diagnoses concerns of patients.
“Mental health services at regional hospitals along with drug and alcohol services is paramount.”
The organisation said an extra community nurse care and support in palliative care for weekdays and weekends for patients at home was an “extreme need”.
“We are heavily reliant on volunteer services, which are limited and unable to cater for the amount of health needs in these areas.
“There is a need for a more comprehensive role for the ambulance in rural and regional areas administering of medications to home palliative care patients.”
Can Assist also pointed to a lack of incentives to attract GPs into the rural and remote areas.
Leeton Shire Council reiterated the lack of doctor coverage in the emergency department and the inability to use the operating theatre at Leeton Hospital as significant concern.
“Unreliable access to ambulance services is an increasing concern,” the submission said.
The lack of readily accessible drug and alcohol and mental health services along with physiotherapy services, and wait times to access GP services were also listed.
Shadow Minister for Rural Health Kate Washington said too many people in the regions had been let down by the health system.
“We have heard about towns without doctors, hospitals without bandages and people who haven’t been able to get the care they need,” Ms Washington said.
“Families have lost ones because they were failed by a health system that is simply too sick to cope.
“Communities across NSW deserve answers and a plan to fix this broken system so this crisis never happens again.”
This article appeared in the Narrandera Argus, 25 March 2021.