Regional health workers are warning the system is struggling under the weight of an increase in COVID-19 cases and staff shortages.
- Health workers say COVID-19 has exacerbated staff shortages in regional areas
- A lack of rapid antigen tests has contributed to the problem
- Federal Regional Health Minister David Gillespie said reinforcements were being arranged for some towns that were low on medical staff
Kristy Wilson knows Griffith Base Hospital well. She was born there and has worked there throughout her 25-year nursing career.
But she told 7.30 the hospital in central NSW, like many around the country, was now feeling the pressures of COVID-19 cases and furloughed workers, who were isolating either because they had the virus or were a close contact.
“I can honestly say that this is absolutely the worst I have seen it,” Ms Wilson, who is the union secretary of the Griffith Base Hospital NSW Nurses and Midwives Association Branch, told 7.30.
“Staff are now beyond exhausted and tired.”
Federal Regional Health Minister, David Gillespie — a former regional doctor — agreed “the whole health system is under pressure”, but said the federal government had taken steps to address staffing shortages in hospitals around the country.
“We’ve set up the private hospital arrangement where not only private hospitals make themselves available if needed — and they are being used by the state governments — but also their staff,” he said.
In a statement, NSW Health told 7.30 the state was actively addressing staffing issues. It said:
“Between mid-2012 and mid-2021, NSW Health has increased its workforce by an additional 25,278 full-time equivalent staff — an increase of 25 per cent including 3,736 more doctors (38.9 per cent), 9,599 more nurses and midwives (23 per cent) and 2,444 more allied health staff (27 per cent). A further 8,300 frontline staff are being added over 2019-2023, with 45 per cent going to the regions.”
Ms Wilson said if it was not for financial pressures, she would consider leaving the profession.
“I do think about what other career I can go into,” she said.
“I have a mortgage and I have three kids, so I do need to pay my bills.”
COVID-19 making medical services ‘non-existent’ in some towns
Data indicates that nationally there is a shortage of healthcare professionals, especially GPs and specialists, in regional areas.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, job vacancies in the sector have continued to rise since the pandemic began, with it citing resignations and increased workload as the top two reasons for the staffing shortfall.
Health workers who spoke to 7.30 said COVID-19 had exacerbated staffing shortfalls.
The CEO of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, Peta Rutherford, said regional and rural areas were particularly vulnerable to staff shortages.
“Some communities, where you’ve got one or two doctors town, if the doctor tests positive to COVID, or two of them test positive to COVID, that basically means the medical service is non-existent for that town. And for people in that community, it could mean a 100 to 200km drive to the next health service,” Ms Rutherford said.
Dr Gillespie said reinforcements were being arranged for some towns that were low on medical staff.
“In the outbreak where there were these little towns with one doctor, particularly in western NSW, and in the Northern Territory, the Royal Flying Doctor Services (RFDS) turned up with the nurse practitioners, paramedics — and even RFDS doctors have stayed to staff, say, the Wilcannia Hospital in times of need,” he said.
He said border closures and uncertainty had made it difficult to get relief staff to plug the gaps when staff were in isolation.
“With the state border closures, it’s actually made the locum services a lot harder to operate because a lot of people used to travel interstate,” he said.
RAT shortages and delays in PCR tests are also contributing to staffing issues.
“We have heard, you know, day eight, day nine, and people still haven’t heard, or haven’t had a result, on their PCR tests. So that further contributes to the delay, or the isolation of staff not being able to return to work,” Ms Rutherford said.
Dr Gillespie said the government was distributing RATs from the national medical stockpile but it was prioritising vulnerable groups.
“We prioritise the areas that we’re immediately responsible for and that is aged care, Aboriginal medical services and frontline health workers, including GPs and pharmacists,” he said.
In remote Central Australia, a small Indigenous-owned and run organisation providing dialysis and other treatment is finding novel solutions to the threat posed by the virus.
Purple House has made its own negative-pressure ventilation pods, so if a patient gets COVID-19 they can still come to the centre to receive dialysis.
“It’s really vital in those circumstances that we protect our nursing staff, because if they are infected then of course the dialysis unit will shut down,” Simon Quilty, the medical adviser for Purple House, told 7.30.
Rapid antigen tests are also a vital tool in its arsenal of measures to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks, especially given Purple House has clinics sprinkled across very remote and isolated parts of the country. However it struggled to secure them for a while due to shortages.
It now has a small stockpile thanks to a donation from a Melbourne RAT distributor, but Dr Quilty has a strong message for politicians.
“The political football of who funds this kind of stuff, whether it be Commonwealth or state, needs to be resolved. We don’t have the time for that kind of politicking in the space that we’re working at,” he said.