Patients are being shifted like pawns: doctors

Waste of resources?: This operating room at Royal North Shore Hospital is being used as a storeroom. Photo: SuppliedOperating theatres at one of Sydney’s top hospitals are being used as storage rooms while patients are being shifted around ”like pawns” to meet surgery targets, doctors say.

Senior doctors from Royal North Shore Hospital say the decision could put patients at risk, and is a waste of time and money that has been imposed by bureaucrats in the Ministry of Health – directly undermining Health Minister Jillian Skinner’s promise to give local control to local doctors.

Fairfax Media has revealed huge waiting lists for hospital clinics, and the cancellation of life-saving cancer surgeries by a Sydney hospital trying to meet its end-of-year budget. The surgeries were reinstated after public outcry.

Professor Tony Joseph, the acting chairman of the medical staff council and director of trauma at Royal North Shore, said a $1.1 billion redevelopment of the hospital had left it with empty operating rooms and not enough beds.

”It’s a bit of a mess,” he said.

The hospital was operating with fewer beds available than before Premier Barry O’Farrell and Mrs Skinner opened the new building in December, with only 14 of 18 operating theatres funded.

This meant when high numbers of emergency patients showed up, surgeries needed to be cancelled.

”They haven’t funded our surgical capacity to its full potential,” Professor Joseph said.

NSW director of the Australian Orthopaedic Association Andrew Ellis said many of the orthopaedic, as well as ear, nose and throat surgery patients who were being moved had other conditions, such as heart or kidney problems, being treated at Royal North Shore. They could have poorer outcomes without continuity of care, and early assessments might have to be repeated by the new doctors, he said.

The head of orthopaedic surgery at the hospital, David Sonnabend, said it was not clear why they were being moved, as the first patient to be approached had only been waiting for surgery for six weeks. ”We feel that patients are being used as pawns in a political game,” he said.

Labor health spokesman Andrew McDonald said the $3 billion in health cuts and efficiency savings announced by the government were affecting patient care.

”What’s happening is, when staff leave they are not being replaced, and that reduces the capacity of the system, so when you need to ramp up the system to meet demand, you can’t do it because the staff is not there,” he said.

But Mrs Skinner said more frontline doctors and nurses were added when the new building opened, and the district had its budget increased by $33.7 million this year.

”The opening has resulted in a higher level of activity than expected and this has impacted on the hospital’s capacity to do surgery on time,” she said. ”The state priority is that patients receive their care within clinically appropriate times and public hospitals form a clinical network to help that happen.”

Royal North Shore general manager Sue Shilbury said the operating theatres had been built to accommodate demand in future, and there was no shortage of staff.

”As the population increases additional theatres will come online,” she said.

She said since June the hospital had changed operating theatre use so it was not affected by unexpected increases in trauma cases.

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