29 September 2023

'Record number' of elective surgeries promised with fire-damaged hospital theatres set to reopen

| Claire Fenwicke
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North Canberra Hospital

Fire-damaged operating theatres at North Canberra Hospital will re-open next week. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

The ACT Government has set itself the challenge of delivering a “record number” of elective surgeries this financial year despite failing to reach previous targets.

It had promised to deliver 14,800 elective surgeries in the 2022/23 financial year but only managed just over 12,600.

Now it’s aiming for 15,500 elective surgeries, which Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said was an achievable target for the Territory.

“The disruption at the [former] Calvary Public Hospital Bruce in December last year did interrupt our capacity to deliver elective surgeries,” she said.

“[But] Canberra Hospital met its elective surgery target, despite having an additional emergency surgery load.”

This includes extra bariatric surgeries at Canberra Hospital.

Seven of the now-North Canberra Hospital’s theatres were damaged when a fire ripped through them in December 2022. The electrical fire started in the ceiling and is believed to have travelled down one of the lights.

Most theatres are now back online and the final theatres will be re-opened in October.

The government had been working with private hospitals in Canberra and NSW to schedule as many surgeries as possible during this period.

Category 1 and 2 surgeries had been prioritised.

Ms Stephen-Smith said the opening of those final theatres meant the new target of 15,500 elective surgeries was realistic, with an extra $6.7 million allocated to help complete the task.

“We’re looking forward to be able to get back on to a pre-fire schedule of elective surgeries at North Canberra Hospital,” she said.

“Of course, next year we’ll see the opening of the Critical Services Building at Canberra Hospital, which will bring more theatres online in the public system.”

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North Canberra Hospital CEO Dr Elaine Pretorius explained many of the North Canberra staff needed for surgeries – such as doctors, nurses and anaesthetists – had been working in other hospitals while waiting for these theatres to come back online, and she looked forward to welcoming them “home”.

“It’s hard to describe how much work [has gone into this] … and we’re very proud to be delivering this on time,” she said.

“It’s been about $15 million worth of rebuild and equipment, and we’ve had to work with our insurers [on that].”

Everything from the walls, lighting and radiology lining down to storage shelves, surgical lasers and scalpels needed to be replaced following the fire.

The rooms then need to be tested repeatedly for any fungus or bacteria that could be lingering due to the water damage.

Rosters had to be re-jigged as staff returned to the hospital, with Dr Pretorius explaining they were only about 600 surgeries behind on where they should be.

“That is an extraordinary effort,” she said.

“I would say that we are delayed on our Category 3 and 4 patients. The good news is that we are still able to outsource some of that, and as our theatres ramp up, we’ll start being able to catch up, not only on our own targets but on those 600 that we are behind.”

Including the shortfall from last year with this backlog, it means, in total, the government is about 1200 elective surgeries behind on last year.

The government wants to complete 60,000 elective surgeries between 2020 and 2024.

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The Opposition isn’t convinced the extra money or theatres will enable the government to reach any of its targets.

Shadow Health Minister Leanne Castley said less than 42,000 surgeries had been performed since 2020, which meant the government was “likely” to fail to deliver its 60,000 commitment by 2024.

“Investing $6.7 million to achieve 15,500 surgeries also does not fix the serious staff shortfalls and cultural issues that impact elective surgery numbers,” she said.

“This latest spin from the minister follows reports that the ACT Labor-Greens government have abandoned and failed to implement the Northside Elective Surgery Centre, which was also a 2020 election commitment.”

Ms Castley said last year, thousands of Canberrans were waiting in pain longer than clinically recommended, with some deciding to head interstate or pay to visit private hospitals because they feared they would not receive elective surgeries “in their lifetime”.

“It is difficult to believe there will be any improvement going forward despite the minister’s assertions that they are building on previous investments for elective surgeries,” she said.

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