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It was just over a year ago that then acting premier James Merlino announced that the state government would ramp up surgical activity to record levels. With Victoria’s waiting list stretching out to more than 80,000 people, it was a welcome promise that $1.5 billion would be spent to clear the massive backlog built up over the pandemic.
While the state’s leading medical colleges and health unions unsurprisingly endorsed the spending blitz, they did sound the alarm bells over one aspect of the plan. After three years of dealing with COVID-19, healthcare workers were beyond exhausted, leaving the system in droves, and time was needed to train the significant number of workers need to staff the measure.
The pressure on staffing in Victoria’s hospitals is only going to increase. Credit: Justin McManus
It appears time has proven those warnings prescient.
The Sunday Age has been told by several senior hospital sources that operating theatres at the eight hospitals focused on trying to cut the backlog are frequently sitting idle as there are not enough healthcare workers to staff them. At the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, the staffing shortages mean that only six out of its eight operating theatres can be staffed on any given day.
It’s not just Victoria that is finding itself with operating theatres laying dormant. Four new theatres are being used to store medical supplies and equipment at a Sydney children’s hospital as thousands of children wait for essential surgeries. The blame is also being sheeted home to an ongoing staffing, recruitment and retention crisis in the anaesthetics and intensive care departments.
Unfortunately, all the signs are pointing to a crisis that is only going to become more acute in years to come.
Last year’s state election became a fierce bidding war over health. Labor promised close to $10 billion in spending on large health projects, including new hospitals in West Gippsland and Melbourne’s east. There was also a commitment to expand the Royal Melbourne and Royal Women’s hospitals, billed as Australia’s biggest-ever hospital project involving two new hospital towers.
Such an enormous expansion of facilities will require an equivalent expansion of staff numbers. When you put that in the context of a health system that is already struggling to fill places, it paints a challenging scenario down the track.
To give the Andrews government credit, it has committed a sizeable amount of money subsidising the HECS debt of more than 10,000 nursing and midwifery students and is handing out $5000 sign-on bonuses to graduate nurses and midwives who enter the state’s public system until the end of next year.
But with large numbers of health workers fleeing the system during the pandemic, it’s going to be an uphill battle. Dr Jill Tomlinson, the Australian Medical Association’s Victorian vice president, says Australia is also struggling to entice experienced international healthcare workers into the country due to its complex immigration system.
Let’s not pretend there is an easy fix here. If that existed, governments would be lining up to implement it.
But if there is one lesson that can be learnt, it is that governments making big, splashy announcements throwing large amounts of cash at the problem is not the answer. In fact, long term it may just be the reverse.
As respected health expert Stephen Duckett asserted during last year’s state election, “politicians love hospitals…[they] have impressive machines with flashing lights and provide almost unlimited opportunities for turning sods and cutting ribbons”.
But unless they are adequately staffed, they will just become monuments to a political system more interested in attracting the attention of voters than truly improving the state’s health system.
Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.
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