Nurses seek assurance over cancer triage hotline service


Cancer patients in Tasmania’s south are hopeful for the survival of a support hotline they had been told would close within weeks.

The Royal Hobart Hospital’s (RHH) Oncology Nurse Triage Hotline offers advice about post-treatment care, drug reactions and psychological support to patients undergoing cancer treatment.

In recent weeks the RHH gave letters to patients saying the hotline would stop operating as of July 27, and they should contact their GP or present to the emergency department (ED) if they had treatment-related problems.

Cancer patient Cathy Craig said the hotline had saved her several unnecessary trips to the ED as well as providing support during a stressful time.

She recently phoned the hotline when she feared a surgical wound was not healing properly.

“It was five minutes to ring and talk to them, they went away, assessed it, spoke to a higher authority, called me back and said ‘this is what we think. If it get’s worse, come in and see us’, end of story.”

Ms Craig was dismayed when she was told the hotline was closing, and hoped it could continue.

“I’ve got a friend that was just diagnosed last week, week before, and to think that she might not have that available to her, that’s disappointing,” she said.

THS says hotline to continue, unaltered

Emily Shepherd said nurses would welcome an ongoing commitment.(ABC News: Craig Heerey)

The triage hotline has operated since 2016 when a transition-to-practice (TTP) nurse was funded in the RHH oncology ward, freeing up other nurses to manage the phone service.

Funding for the TTP nurse position in the ward ended in March, but the hospital continued to fill the position with casual nurses during the COVID-19 period.

On Friday a Tasmanian Health Service spokesman said patients could be reassured that the RHH oncology phone service would continue.

“There has never been any intention to alter this service, and work is currently underway to ensure the service is appropriately staffed,” he said.

Emily Shepherd from the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation said she believed the hospital’s managers wanted the hotline to continue.

“It certainly is our understanding that the Royal Hobart Hospital senior management are supportive of this service, but to date we haven’t had any ongoing commitments for the service to continue past the 27th of July,” she said.

“Certainly reinstating an additional position into that service will ensure its continuation … and certainly that’s a commitment that we’d like to see.”

Hotline prevents ED presentations, helps rural cancer patients

Dr Eve Merfield smiles at the camera.
Dr Merfield said hotline services saved rural cancer patients from unnecessary travel.(Supplied: RDAA)

Over its three years of operation, the hotline has dealt with up to 1,000 calls a year.

RHH Medical Staff Association chairman Frank Nicklason said it was highly valued by clinicians, patients, general practitioners and community nurses.

“It helps patients to feel confident about managing symptoms relating to cancer and cancer treatment and it helps patients avoid unnecessary presentations to our emergency department,” he said.

Dr Nicklason said during the coronavirus pandemic it was vital to limit the time cancer patients, who often had suppressed immune systems, spent in hospitals and EDs.

“The last place they should be is in a crowded emergency department, particularly if that’s unnecessary.”

The Tasmanian president of the Rural Doctor’s Association of Australia, Eve Merfield, said services like the hotline could also save rural patients unnecessary and expensive travel.

“It’s often stressful enough for rural patients to travel to the city when they’re well, but when they’re debilitated by both their disease and their treatment it can be very distressing,” Dr Merfield said.

“We know that people in rural areas have poorer outcomes from cancer, for a variety of reasons, so every support they can get to undergo that treatment is really important.”



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