Wollongong Hospital at breaking point claims NSW Labor

Inquiry needed: Wollongong Hospital is buckling under the pressure of a horror flu season, says NSW Labor which claims inadequate staffing and funding are to blame. Picture: Adam McLean
Inquiry needed: Wollongong Hospital is buckling under the pressure of a horror flu season, says NSW Labor which claims inadequate staffing and funding are to blame. Picture: Adam McLean

The NSW Opposition has called for an immediate, independent investigation into Wollongong Hospital after ‘’brave whistleblowers’’ shed light on a facility they claim is at breaking point.

‘’Hospital at CRISIS point’’ read one text message sent to casual staff last month as administrators struggled to fill rosters in the midst of a horror flu season.

Mr Scully said the texts, forwarded to him by a frustrated worker –  as well as personal accounts shared with him by other staff and patients – revealed the hospital was ‘’buckling’’ under the pressure.

He said the government’s ‘’inadequate funding and staffing’’ of the hospital had left it ill-prepared for the onslaught caused by an almost four-fold increase in flu cases across the health district. 

There’s been 4146 flu notifications throughout the health district so far this year, compared to 1253 for the whole of 2016.

‘’In the past four weeks we’ve seen regular incidences of bed block,’’ he said. ‘’For instance one clinician told me that there were more than 80 people waiting for beds one day last week in the emergency department – including a patient of theirs who had cancer and was left sitting in a chair all night.

‘’However we understand that wards at the new Illawarra Elective Surgical Services Centre remain closed due to lack of funding for staff, while the ‘winter ward’ usually opened each year to deal with increased presentations was not opened this year.’’

The chain of text messages showed desperate attempts to adequately staff hospital departments during August’s peak flu season. ‘’Staff urgently required’’ read several, ‘’Overtime approved’’.

‘’We’ve been told that nursing staff are being requested to undertake double shifts, and are being called upon at short notice to do extra shifts,’’ Mr Scully said. ‘’We hear patients are being discharged too early to free up beds, and being pressed to access private hospitals.’’

Mr Scully and Labor’s health spokesman Walt Secord are demanding that Health Minister Brad Hazzard instigate an external investigation into the hospital.

They pointed to the independent investigation into the South East Regional Hospital in Bega in May, which they said uncovered systematic problems.

Mr Secord said an inquiry at Wollongong should focus on the hospital’s financial situation and staffing requirements, and make recommendations on how to ‘’fix’’ the system.

He said the latest Hospital Quarterly figures showed almost 16,000 patients had presented to Wollongong’s emergency department from April to June; with over a third waiting for longer than four hours. Wollongong patients also faced waits of up to 12 months for common elective procedures.

‘’Wollongong Hospital is at breaking point,’’ Mr Scully added. ‘’Staff are doing their best, but they’re not being properly supported.’’

Health Minister hits back at MPs claims

An unprecedented ‘’flu tsunami’’ – rather than lack of government funding – had put Wollongong Hospital under pressure according to NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard.

However Mr Hazzard said he was disappointed that Wollongong MP Paul Scully was using the flu crisis to ‘’try and make political points’’.

During Thursday’s question time Mr Scully asked Premier Gladys Berejiklian: ‘’Will your government admit that Wollongong Hospital is at breaking point with ‘bed block’ for the last four weeks and last Thursday night 86 patients were unable to get access to a hospital bed?’’.

Ms Berejiklian side-stepped the question, pointing out her government’s $106 million investment in the hospital’s Elective Surgical Services Centre. 

However Mr Hazzard later said that Mr Scully should have approached him, or hospital management, about the issue.

‘’We’ve had a flu tsunami across the entire state – the Illawarra is not an island,’’ he said. ‘’Every hospital in the state has been under enormous pressure – on any given day there could be triple or quadruple the number of flu presentations.

‘’The staff have been working extremely hard during what has been the worst flu season on record, and I thank them for that.’’

Mr Hazzard said the problem had been exacerbated by staff themselves falling sick, while Wollongong Hospital management had found recruiting more casual staff a challenge.

He refuted Mr Scully’s claims that wards at Wollongong remained unopen. ‘’In winter the hospital usually opens another 12 beds – this year they’ve opened an extra 23 beds,’’ Mr Hazzard said.