Five-year-old William McLennan is well-acquainted with the treatment handed out in the children’s ward at the Canberra Hospital.
William has spinal muscular atrophy, a condition estimated to affect about one in 10,000 children.
And, after falling out of his wheelchair earlier this year, William spent 10 weeks in the Canberra Hospital with a broken leg.
His mum, Naomi Taylor, said from the minute William was admitted, to the time when the family left, the staff at the hospital were brilliant.
“To be honest, I can’t really fault them at all,” she said.
“They were fantastic.
“They work extremely hard, and I think we’re blessed to have a good team of nurses and doctors.”
Naomi’s sentiments are echoed by many, particularly within Canberra’s community of children with high-needs, who regularly interact with the hospital.
Patients often praise the hard work of doctors, nurses and specialists — caring for them in moments of incredible grief and joy.
But, early in William’s stay, one of the hospital’s shortcomings became clear.
Staff doing what they can, with what they’ve got
There were concerns William’s condition may worsen, and he would need to be transferred to intensive care.
The ACT has no public, paediatric intensive care beds — and William would have been flown to Sydney.
Naomi said at times like those, the lack of paediatric-specialist services was worrying.
“They had to get one of the doctors from the adult hospital to come down and do the surgery and everything,” she said.
“So there is a need for more paediatric specialists.”
Data tells a difficult story
Canberra’s population has grown rapidly over the past decade, and the demands placed on the city’s hospitals have grown too.
Demand for ACT public hospital care soared more than 50 per cent in the six years to 2020, before dropping off significantly during the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic also relieved the mounting pressure on the city’s emergency departments.
In early 2020, less than a third of patients considered “urgent” were being seen on time, but that figure improved as the number of patients presenting fell rapidly.
While the pandemic also blew out elective surgery waiting lists, they were already significant.
Just before the COVID-19 health crisis hit, 889 people were overdue for surgery. Less than four years ago, that figure was 157.
‘Chronic underfunding’ at the core
Many doctors suggest those figures are simply symptoms of larger, structural problems.
That includes the age of Canberra Hospital — the original Woden Valley Hospital was opened in 1973, and took on a range of primary services when Royal Canberra Hospital was closed in the 1990s.
But for Antonio Di Dio, the current president of the ACT branch of the Australian Medical Association, the primary issue is money.
“It is not unreasonable to describe a great deal of the problems in ACT Health as coming from chronic underfunding,” Dr Di Dio said.
And, he argues, demand has far outgrown capacity.
“The number of operating theatres has not changed significantly, and the number of hospital beds is almost completely unchanged, in the last decade,” he said.
“That is putting an enormous strain on the system.”
Both major parties recognise the strain and, no matter who wins government in the ACT on October 17, there are policies to address the state of the city’s healthcare system.
In particular the ACT Government wants to begin construction on a $500m expansion of the Canberra Hospital next year.
The expansion would add 148 inpatient beds, 39 emergency beds, and double the intensive care capacity from 30 beds to 60.
It would also add four paediatric intensive care beds, for the first time.
Dr Di Dio said after years of discussing an expansion, the work would be very welcome.
“I think that plan can be described as a very good start, but it’s not going to solve all of the challenges,” he said.
Both major parties have committed to expanding the hospital, and health experts are hoping the current plans stick.
Healthcare isn’t all hospitals
But an expansion to the hospital will not solve all of Canberra’s medical woes — it certainly will not help people like Donna Trucillo, who is tired of driving the Hume Highway.
Donna has spent years trying to manage her serious reflux, but while the issue is extremely common, she often finds she cannot get the treatment she needs in Canberra.
“I’ve seen a number of gastroenterologists here in Canberra, but, unfortunately, what I need in terms of treatment and investigation means I have to travel to Sydney,” she said.
While Canberra boasts a top-tier medical school and a wide array of specialists, complaints of having to seek treatment in Sydney and Melbourne are common.
Donna spent much of her life in Sydney, and was surprised at the challenges she found seeking care in Canberra.
“I often think that it’s amazing that I live in Australia’s capital city, and it’s difficult for me to find specialists and therapists,” she said.
But she recognises the problems with Canberra’s healthcare system are complex, and various governments have dedicated significant time and money to fixing them.
Emergency departments have been expanded, and nurse-led walk-in centres have opened to relieve pressure.
Early works for the $500m Canberra Hospital expansion have already been completed, and contracts are all but signed with the builder.
Now, with both major parties promising change over the next four years, patients like Donna and William hope it might just come.
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