21 May 2020

Postponed surgeries create post-COVID-19 backlog

| Dominic Giannini
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Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith says the ACT Government is working on a COVID-Safe plan to transition the Territory out of lockdown. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Around 2,300 scheduled elective surgeries will not be completed this financial year after the government cancelled some surgeries in March to create capacity to deal with possible COVID-19 admissions.

ACT Health and Canberra Health Services (CHS) are working on a plan to get elective surgery back up to 100 per cent capacity in the next few weeks, but a specific timeline for the return of elective surgery categories has not been outlined.

CHS CEO Bernadette McDonald said the department would need to hire more staff to help clear the backlog.

“We need to look at what capacity we can access across the system, both from a physical theatre and bed capacity [perspective], and workforce capacity [perspective],” she said.

“We have not done the detailed planning but we will be providing advice on that to government.

“We do need to remember that across Australia everyone is doing the same thing, so there might be some workforce challenges in terms of the workforce we can get to do extra surgery.”

Patients are being triaged and the most urgent cases will be moved up the list, although urgent cases were still able to go ahead as all category-one patients and the most urgent category-two patients have continued to receive their surgery.

Canberra’s private health network could also help clear the backlog.

“Patients are being assessed and should any clinical urgency change in their condition then they will be reprioritised,” Ms McDonald said.

“In the ACT we are in a great position, though, because we have established relationships with our private providers who have the capacity, so that can factor into our plan to provide that extra capacity.”

Some categories of elective surgeries were stopped in March to help conserve medical resources in case a large COVID-19 outbreak overwhelmed Australia’s healthcare system.

Elective surgery

Further easing of restrictions is expected to be announced next Friday, 29 May after National Cabinet meets. Photo: File.

National Cabinet announced the return of all elective surgeries last Friday (15 March), with each state and territory to return to capacity at their own pace.

The level of elective surgery will be reviewed monthly by the Australian Health Ministers’ Advisory Council (AHMAC) to ensure that it remains safe and sustainable, and in line with the agreed principles.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said the Government will continue to monitor the state of cases in the ACT as well as NSW before making decisions about what COVID-19-related measures should be relaxed further.

“We would be looking not only at our own experience – although that is the primary driver – but also what is happening in NSW, what is happening in terms of travel within NSW,” she said.

“If we start to see a significant cluster of cases in NSW close to us, or that would be relying on our health system, that would also affect our decision making because we operate in partnership with the southern health network and Canberra Hospital is the tertiary hospital for the southern NSW region.

“In terms of the ACT, if we started to see evidence of community transmission here, if we started to see a number of cases with no known, obvious source of transmission, that is something that would give us pause for thought about how we took our next steps.”

Further easing of restrictions is expected to be announced next Friday, 29 May after National Cabinet meets. The meeting will mark three weeks since some social distancing restrictions were eased in the Territory and a fortnight since business restrictions were eased.

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