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News & Trends - MedTech & Diagnostics

NSW Health Minister admits appetite for reform, yet the stark reality cannot be ignored

Health Industry Hub | April 8, 2024 |

MedTech & Diagnostics News: At this year’s NSW State Health Outlook, state Minister for Health, Ryan Park, has underscored his dedication to improving the public healthcare workforce and fostering a closer collaboration with the private hospital sector. Yet, clinicians point to a stark reality on the ground that cannot be ignored.

Minister Park referred to the workforce as the biggest challenge in healthcare, saying “It’s what keeps me up at night.”

Official figures from NSW Health for 2022-2023 revealed a nurse attrition rate of 13.1%, a 5% increase from pre-pandemic levels in 2018-2019. The findings of a NSW parliamentary inquiry two years ago also exposed significant deficiencies in health services, especially across regional, rural, and remote areas. Stakeholders highlighted the struggle of hospitals in acquiring adequate staffing levels despite ongoing infrastructure upgrades.

Speaking to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) during the NSW State Health Outlook, Minister Park disclosed the recent improvements to the healthcare workforce. Between February 2023 to February 2024, NSW Health has recruited over 3,000 additional workers, including 1,200 nurses, 150 paramedics, 300 doctors, and 400 allied health workers, bringing the total workforce to over 139,000 full-time equivalent staff.

However, there is a growing disconnect emerging between the vision held by the NSW Health Minister and what is unfolding in reality. A/Professor Viraj Kariyawasam, gastroenterologist and Head of Inflammatory Bowel Disease Service at Blacktown and Mount Druitt Hospital, said “Behind the scenes, those who dare to speak up are facing backlash and intimidation, often utilising outdated government employee laws and system to ensure they leave the system. It’s a concerning truth that amidst efforts to improve, a culture of fear and suppression seems to be taking hold.”

Cardiologist Professor Ian Wilcox from Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, said “NSW Health don’t seem to share the Health Minister’s views on frontline staff. Under the cover of the lead up to Easter, numerous frontline staff were sacked in the Sydney Local Health District while NSW Health ran seminars on staff wellness. Dr Teresa Anderson [Chief Executive of Sydney Local Health District] has to cut heads to meet her KPIs, and we wouldn’t want that to be administrators so out the door they go.”

President of the Australian Medical Association (NSW), Dr Michael Bonning, has raised concerns over the inadequacy of the NSW September health budget, which he deemed insufficient to support the crumbling public health system. Dr Bonning highlighted a mere 0.87% increase in the budget, amounting to a 7% cut after accounting for health inflation estimated at 8%.

Acknowledging the ongoing challenges, Minister Park stated “Let’s be clear though, there’s plenty more to be done and everyone knows – from health workers to the patients they care for – there remain major structural challenges in terms of shortages and retention.

“We won’t undo 12 years of underinvestment in our health system overnight, but we’re going to work closely with our workers and their representatives every step of the way, because there’s too much at stake.”

The Nurses and Midwives Association secured a deal in February 2024 for increased nurse-to-patient ratios, following years of advocacy. The cancellation of state infrastructure projects, including transport projects and major underground roads, had freed up the money in the budget. This phase-based policy, will see one nurse to every three patients in hospital emergency departments with plans for other wards to eventually follow.

Addressing the delay in the rollout, initially planned at Sydney’s Liverpool Hospital and Royal North Shore Hospital in March, Minister Park attributed it to “teething issues,” emphasising the complexity of the reform, which he hailed as “the largest reform that we’ve undertaken in terms of the way we staff our hospitals in the history of NSW.”

Minister Park also highlighted the importance of exploring innovative healthcare models, such as Hospital in the Home and Virtual Care, while signalling a deeper desire for collaboration with the private hospital sector and faith-based organisations, such as Catholic Health Australia, as a critical role in supporting the public health system.

“We can’t do what we do without them,” Minister Park asserted.

A/Professor Kariyawasam added “It’s time to bridge this gap between rhetoric and reality. True reform cannot happen without addressing the systemic issues plaguing our healthcare system and ensuring that the voices of frontline workers are not only heard but valued and protected.”

Meanwhile, AMA NSW is calling on the Minns Government to commit to a substantial increase in health funding in the upcoming budget.

“Our drastically overburdened health workforce cannot continue to perform under the current conditions. Without an urgent injection of health dollars, it is patients who will suffer as they wait longer in the emergency department and are forced to endure longer stays in hospital,” Dr Bonning stressed.

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