A permanent specialist women’s cancer centre will be set up in the ACT following lobbying from doctors at all levels of government over the past three years.
Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith made the announcement as she released ACT Health’s plan for future services.
That document contained an acknowledgement of the fact Canberra Hospital serves as not only a local but a regional healthcare provider as the only tertiary hospital between Sydney and Melbourne.
When services aren’t available locally, patients from the ACT and the surrounding region are required to travel to Sydney.
Ms Stephen-Smith has fielded questions all year about why a range of services, including women’s and children’s cancer services, aren’t available locally despite the size of the population the hospital caters for.
She’s argued specialist services can only be set up here if there is proof it can be safe and sustainable – meaning enough opportunities for staff to keep their skills up and enough demand to make it worthwhile.
But Ms Stephen-Smith wouldn’t be drawn on whether the Government had been pressured to set up a permanent gynaecological oncology clinic now.
“We’ve taken a really considered approach and we wouldn’t have set it up if we didn’t think it could be done safely,” she said.
“We discovered there was an opportunity to have someone come in and deliver a gynaecological oncology service here in the ACT.
“There’s been some advocacy work from outside but there’s also been internal work to understand whether we could sustain that kind of service [locally].”
Canberra Health Services is now actively recruiting a part-time doctor for that role.
In June, Dr Greg Robertson from the Royal Women’s Hospital in Sydney – whose retirement at the end of this year would have left Canberra without these services entirely – warned it was a highly specialised role.
Across the country, only 60 doctors are qualified in the field of gynaecological oncology surgery. Another doctor, Leon Foster, has already signalled his interest.
Ms Stephen-Smith said Canberra Health Services was working through the logistics but it would be a small service.
Ms Stephen-Smith said conversations were underway to determine how the Territory could sustain more pediatric services as the population grew.
The Canberra Hospital expansion will allow for a four-bed pediatric intensive care unit. Ms Stephen-Smith said that was “really tiny” but that there were only two in the entirety of Sydney as well.
“There is a lot of work to understand how we can sustain a safe, sustainable and high-quality service at a very small level,” she said.
“There will be circumstances where we just won’t be big enough to sustain some services, even when we hit half a million.”
Ms Stephen-Smith said that was why future planning was so important.
As part of the plan, the Government will finalise its cross-border health agreement with NSW. The Health Minister said the overarching part of this was ensuring people could access care as close to home as possible and stronger connections could be built.
Not only do Canberrans have to travel to Sydney for specialist care, but many residents of NSW have to attend Canberra Hospital for care they cannot always access in their own area.
The Government says the plan will help the Territory’s healthcare system cope with increased demand as the population grows and ages.
An ageing population means a higher incidence of chronic diseases and other health conditions. The directorate signalled a range of ways it would seek to ease the pressure on hospital beds at the acute end of the system.
This would include increasing the number of walk-in centres and care in the community so people could be served as close to home as possible.
The Government is also planning for a future northside hospital and work will get underway this week on a strategy for the future of the healthcare workforce.
It’s hoped the Territory’s healthcare system will become easier to navigate to stop patients “falling through the cracks”.
That’s a criticism often levelled at the local system – whether people are seeking mental, physical or specialist care.
According to the health plan, emergency department presentations had grown by an average of 3 per cent a year and that trend was expected to continue.
Demand for other treatment areas was expected to grow between 2 and 4 per cent a year over the next decade.
Community consultation on the health services plan is open until Friday, 9 September via Your Say.
The plan is subject to change.