1 October 2019

Hydrotherapy closure puts new burden on volunteers

| John Thistleton
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Hydrotherapy pool's have become more popular

Hydrotherapy has become more popular since codeine became prescription only. Photo: Supplied.

Pain relief for arthritis sufferers in Canberra’s inner south will be more expensive and difficult to find at the end of next month as another hydrotherapy pool closes in the ACT.

At the end of November, Canberra Hospital’s hydrotherapy pool will close and health bureaucrats, consultants and Arthritis ACT have been unable to find an alternative pool. Meanwhile, volunteers at existing pools have seen a spike in demand from disabled people and arthritis sufferers.

Demand for hydrotherapy as pain relief has been rising since February last year when codeine became prescription-only, according to Arthritis ACT chief executive Rebecca Davey.

“We have seen an absolute spike in demand for anything that helps people deal with pain ever since then. They have taken drugs that help off the shelves in pharmacies and that is a good thing, but you have to have other treatment,” Ms Davey says.

“Hydrotherapy is an amazing treatment for pain relief. Most people get up to two days’ pain relief from a hydrotherapy pool session, and this is much better for them than popping pills but it has to be affordable, considering people could previously buy a packet of codeine for $6 or $7 for a few days’ pain relief.

“There are quite a few private businesses that run hydrotherapy, but they’re out of reach of people with lower incomes, especially if they need to go to the pool three or four times a week. You are looking at $18 an hour up to $80 an hour. Just because you don’t have the money, shouldn’t mean you don’t have access to good quality health care.”

Ms Davey said many of the new clients accessing hydrotherapy for pain relief have mental health issues and are having to come to terms with new therapies instead of using painkillers. This is also making it more difficult for staff.

“They are needier. [The volunteers] love getting out and helping, but when you have 14, 15 or 16 people turning up for a pool session, all wanting a piece of you, the volunteers are getting tired,” she said.

“To run a program like we have with paid staff is horrendously expensive,” she says. “The government was going to have to do that, they never have, it has always been a peer-led volunteer program,” she says. Volunteers with first aid and pool rescue training are providing half the sessions.

Ms Davey notes there is a significant cost if patients can’t access hydrotherapy.

“They develop more health issues like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, all the big-ticket items we are meant to be fighting. You are on a rapid trajectory of those conditions coming to the fore. People become socially isolated. If they need to work, their incomes drop. They become a strain on the health budget, they end up in hospital needing joint replacements, they have longer stays and rehab beds as well,” she said.

The government is advertising for a hydrotherapy pool for the inner south, but even if a private operator opened, it would be unlikely sessions would be accessible for low-income people.

Petitions, government back-peddling and consultants’ reports have continued this year as the deadline for the pool’s closure draws nearer.

Suggestions that southside hydrotherapy pool users travel is becoming more impractical as northside pools are now crowded.

“It’s not as though people are too precious to travel, it is capacity,” Ms Davey says. “More and more people are wanting and needing to use hydrotherapy. We just don’t have enough facilities in Canberra to do it,” Ms Davey said.

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