NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard would not confirm this week if funding for the Inverell Hospital redevelopment would be delivered in the next state budget, but indicated that improvements to the hospital’s emergency department may be a priority.
Mr Hazzard was in Tamworth on Monday, where he was asked if improvements to the emergency department were included in the plan to redevelop the hospital.
“One would anticipate that there will have to be those sort of improvements but that is part of the clinical services plan and the business case,” he said.
How the story developed:
- March, 2016: A public meeting is held at the Inverell Town Hall with representatives from Hunter New England Health to discuss the hopsital redevelopment and the clinical services plan.
- November to December, 2016: Reports surface of Inverell residents arriving at Inverell Hospital emergency, but finding no doctors available.
- December, 2016: A petition circulates calling for 5000 signatures demanding better services at the emergency department.
- December, 2016: Four days later, NSW regional health plans for a doctor on duty full time in the emergency department, and a consistently staffed GP clinic in early 2017
- February, 2017: Bob Bensley pens a letter to the Inverell Times calling for access to the clinical services plan.
- March, 2017: The business case, consistent with the details of the clinical services plan, is submitted to Treasury and later approval by NSW cabinet to release the next round of redevelopment funding.
A clinical services plan was announced by Hunter New England Health at a public meeting in March 2016, which detailed developments to improve the hospital’s services and facilities. In March this year, a business case consistent with consultation in the services plan, was submitted to the state Treasury and NSW cabinet for funding approval.
“There is no question that it needs to be done at some point in Inverell. And the sooner that I can make that happen, the better,” Mr Hazzard said, but did not say when the clinical services plan would be released to the public.
Inverell Shire Mayor Paul Harmon was hopeful the next round of funding for plans and modelling of the redevelopment would be delivered in time for the next state budget. If it happens, the project could see work underway by the end of the year.
Mr Hazzard said it was pre-emptive to make any announcement in Tamworth this week but said the services plan was “critical to the future” of the hospital.
“Obviously, Inverell is not Tamworth. But it is an important medical facility and it provides services that the local community need. But I need to judge that in the context of what the clinicians tell me they need in Inverell.”
Mr Harmon said the business case had stacked a strong argument for the redevelopment of the hospital. He was confident this week that the plan would be approved.
“There is no denying the fact that there needs to be a redevelopment. The long, drawn-out process that feels like it has taken forever has been quite thorough, and I feel it stacks up quite strongly,” he said.
“I think the business case will be fine and we will actually see some funding flow from the next budget for the works to start.”
But Mr Harmon urged the community to be realistic about the services that the hospital could provide. He said the services already available at the hospital would be “enhanced”.
“We are never going to get back to the hospital that was here in the 70s and early 80s when there were all these specialist services that operated out of there,” he said.
“We are never going to be a Tamworth or an Armidale hospital. They are base hospitals and training hospitals. We are a district hospital. And we are looking to making sure that we cater for Inverell's growing population, not just for the next five years or 10 years, but even out to 30 and 50 years.”
Mr Harmon said developing technologies like telehealth, which connects patients in remote areas to specialists in medical hubs via video conference, as the most effective means for the hospital to provide greater access to specialist services.
“It is amazing technology. But that doesn't remove the need for on-call doctors to be at the hospital at all times to stitch the finger that you had cut when you were chopping the wood, or look at the bandage,” he said.
Mr Harmon said there were more issues to address at the hospital as the redevelopment commences. Chief among them was improving transport of patients around Hunter New England Health’s “spoke-and-wheel” services model, which connects isolated patients to specialist services at medical hubs like Tamworth and Armidale.
“That is not just unique to Inverell. It is unique to the whole system,” Mr Harmon said.
“You can have a patient that is transported to Inverell Hospital in (an) Ambulance and then gets transferred to Armidale or Tamworth. Then they get discharged. But how to they actually get home?”
“That is a whole separate debate, and I certainly don't want to cloud that with the redevelopment of the Inverell Hospital,” he said.
“But it is certainly an area that we actually need to sit down with Hunter New England Health and see what solutions they have, and how, as a community, we might be able to come up with solutions so that it can be not just rolled out in the New England region, but even at a state-wide rollout.”
A win in the fight for better services, but the war is not over
“I don't know of anybody who has anything to complain about the service that they get when they get (to the Inverell Hospital. The staff) move heaven and earth with what they have available to them to do a job. They are all responsible and they are all keen to help.
“But even a shortage of staff - that's not an Inverell thing, that's not even an Australian thing, it's a world-wide thing.”
Bob Bensley is a former Inverell Rotarian who has been trying for more than a year to get access to the Inverell Hospital redevelopment clinical services plan, but says he has had no luck.
He said the most pressing concern for the town’s health services was improved access to specialists services and reducing the need to travel for minor ailments.
Mr Bensley penned a letter to the Times in February, detailing his “clear recollections” of a public meeting at the Inverell Town Hall in March 2016, covering the clinical services plan. In it, he criticised Hunter New England Health for what he described as not listening to the community and its needs.
In his letter he wrote: “It’s infuriating to think that there is a plan there to which nobody can get access! In the meantime, the planning proceeds (one assumes). There is no evidence, to my knowledge, of continuing consultations with community members.”
Mr Bensley acknowledged that services like telehealth were helping to connect local patients to regional specialists, but transporting patients to the services they need was still a challenge.
“We haven't got specialists so, of course, we suffer,” he said.
“A lot of people don't get an ambulance or anything like that (for a transfer). In a lot of cases, people report to their hospital or their doctor, and they are told to see a specialist in Armidale.
“You have to be able to afford it, you have to have a car to take you, and it seems to me that’s the major problem.”
But Inverell Mayor Paul Harmon urged the community to be realistic about the services available at the hospital.
Mr Bensley was sceptical: “I'm confident that we are going to get $30 million dollars of something but what that something is going to be, I haven't got the foggiest idea,” he said.
In late 2016, a petition circulated the town demanding improved services at the hospital and the emergency department in particular, after a number of cases of patients presenting to emergency where no doctors were available.
Paul King was one of the cases and spoke to the Times after he fractured his ankle in December.
Mr King heaped praise on the hospital staff and said they provided him with excellent care, but it was concerning there was no doctors available at the time of his injury.
Mr King said what spurred him on at the time of petition was the threat that a child might arrive at the hospital with a life-threatening condition with no doctors available.
The Inverell hospital has since gained a 24-hour GP service in the emergency department and extra hours in the GP clinic.
The announcement was a boon for community health, but Mr Bensley said he was still waiting to see what would be the next development for the hospital.
“We are a district of 16,000 people now,” he said. “Surely, we qualify to have a decent hospital with more services than we have now.
“I think it is just a case of having to wait and see because it is not going to happen any other way.”