6 December 2019

Canberra Health Services hits back at Dhulwa bed-shortage accusations

| Dominic Giannini
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Canberra Hospital

Canberra Health Services has rejected accusations that Dhulwa is under strain. Photo: George Tsotsos.

The ACT Government has hit back at claims that Canberra Hospital’s mental health ward is under strain, following accusations by the Canberra Liberals that the facility does not have enough beds, with one person being on the waiting list for over 130 days.

The Dhulwa Mental Health Unit is a 25-bed facility that provides mental health care for adults who are, or are likely to become, caught up in the criminal justice system. The facility is split into two categories, an acute unit and a rehabilitation unit.

Currently, there are only 17 beds in operation.

The rehabilitation unit, which the detainee was waiting to get into, has been at 100 per cent capacity since June according to a ministerial advisory note obtained under Freedom of Information by the Canberra Liberals. Both units were at capacity on two separate occasions on September 2 and 5, and on at least one occasion after that.

However, a Canberra Health Services spokesperson told Region Media referrals for beds at Dhulwa are considered to be non-urgent or time-critical, as was the detainee’s referral.

“During this period, the detainee at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC) had access to specialised psychiatric services, treatment, and care provided by Canberra Health Services,” the spokesperson said.

“In addition, the Forensic Mental Health team manages mental health patients at Dhulwa and the AMC, so this detainee was supported and monitored by the clinical team.”

Canberra Health Services also says that it is not the case that Dhulwa is under strain.

“It is inaccurate to suggest that Dhulwa has been at capacity since June 2019,” a spokesperson told Region Media.

“The bed capacity at Dhulwa Mental Health Unit has fluctuated since June 2019 with several internal and external transfers, admissions and discharges occurring since this time,” the statement says.

CHS says bed occupancy rates at Dhulwa Mental Health Unit in 2019 were: June: 71 per cent; July: 77 per cent; August: 87 per cent; September: 97 per cent; October: 98 per cent.

“As of November 25, 2019, there is no waiting list for acute beds or rehabilitation beds,” CHS says.

The statement appears to refer to overall capacity across both units while the ministerial note broke down the occupancy of the two wards.

The statement’s detailed occupancy numbers are:

  • June 2019
    • Acute unit 50%
    • Rehabilitation program 100%
  • July 2019
    • Acute unit 60%
    • Rehabilitation 100%
  • August 2019
    • Acute unit 80%
    • Rehabilitation 100%.

Despite Opposition health spokeperson Vicki Dunne’s accusations that the facility is not being expanded because it is not able to attract and retain senior and specialist staff, the Health Directorate says that Dhulwa is not under pressure and that it is important that it is expanded with due process.

“As yet, Dhulwa has not been under pressure to expand capacity. It is imperative that the unit is commissioned gradually and over time. At such time that there is a demonstrated need to expand, this will be managed through the usual budget process,” a spokesperson said.

“Dhulwa is currently adequately staffed to support the operations of 17 beds. Once there is a demonstrated need to commission additional beds, future workforce requirements will be incorporated into our broader workforce plan.

“The rehabilitation beds at Dhulwa have been at capacity intermittently since the seven beds became operational in May 2018.

“If service demand required us to open additional beds and employed staff were unavailable, we would employ other options, such as utilising agency nursing staff to ensure that the unit is appropriately staffed.”

The statement provided to Region Media highlighted a distinction between Dhulwa and Canberra Hospital’s Adult Mental Health Unit, saying the two should not be conflated.

“Dhulwa is a specialist mental health unit and services a different cohort of mental health patients to the Adult Mental Health Unit,” a spokesperson said.

“The Adult Mental Health Unit does not provide rehabilitation beds, and only provides treatment to specific patients experiencing acute mental health episodes.

“Therefore, the pressures experienced at the Canberra Hospital Adult Mental Health Unit cannot be directly linked to Dhulwa reaching near capacity.”

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Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures show the ACT had the worst performance in the country in most emergency triage categories.
Canberra Hospital’s emergency department has come under increased pressure this year, going onto ambulance bypass mode at least three times.
The corridors have also been regularly lined with beds.
But the ACT Government and its social media cheer squad live in a blinkered life of denial.

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