Wed. Jan 26th, 2022

It has been a well-known story across hospitals since COVID-19 forced communities to shut down.

Non-emergency operations were delayed and the backlog of optional procedures grew.

But what also emerged was a bubble of confusion, with staff saying mixed messages that caused internal strife during the height of the pandemic.

Recent data reveals that more people are choosing to spend money on accessing the private healthcare system over public hospital queues.

Figures show that Australia’s private hospitals have stepped up their efforts to address the backlog of elective surgery.

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority revealed that there were 995,540 episodes of care in private hospitals during the three months to the end of September. This is an increase over the previous quarter, although restrictions were in place during the quarter in NSW.

Hurstville Private Hospital, owned by Healthe Care, was among those who postponed procedures, but it also had to change new ways of working, in an unexpected and ever-changing period.

CEO Lloyd Adams said the last 18 months were a “traumatic time”.

He said that although things are much clearer this time, there was some conflicting information from NSW Health during the first two Sydney lockdowns.

“Hurstville was in the middle of a high-risk LGA area,” Adams said.

“Restrictions on elective surgery were not well thought out, so we had to make our own decisions about what to stop.

“I tightened the restrictions at our hospital because we have maternity and intensive care units, including high-risk heart patients, so we had to protect our staff and patients.”

He said that while Category 3 procedures such as plastic surgery or dentistry were postponed, there was ambiguity in the air.

“A category 1 procedure such as childbirth or heart surgery was clear. But for example, a doctor who treated a patient who had prostate cancer may have considered them to be a category 1, but oncologists would say that it is category 2b, so there were conflicting messages, “he said.

“Or urologists would classify kidney stones as category 1, but under NSW Health guidelines it was considered category 2b.

“It’s very low. In the private sector, acute kidney pain equals childbirth. You just want it done.”

He said as a result some arguments would arise. “Some doctors were tooting at each other. We felt sorry for the community because the patients were sad that the surgery they would normally be able to have was not able to be performed.”

Head of Responsibility: Healthe Care's Hurstville Private Hospital CEO, Lloyd Adams.

Head of Responsibility: Healthe Care’s Hurstville Private Hospital CEO, Lloyd Adams.

When elective surgery got back on track, Adams said the effects on staff had taken a toll.

“We have all this extra work, which is great, but it’s awful for our workforce because they’ve never really had a break. Everyone’s under the pump,” he said.

“During all the challenges, we made sure we looked after our 450 employees. For example, we made sure there was an open kitchen where the staff could take food home for their families.”

With the brakes on migrant admissions, skilled health workers, who would normally be placed in the hospital, would mean management would have to reconsider some existing roles.

“We had a shortage of nurses and midwives because what we would normally get from, say, England did not come in and there was a huge baby boom during the lockdown,” Adams said.

“So we strengthened our nursing staff. We trained many of our nurses to perform basic Mothercraft support with our midwives.”

He also said the demand for optional procedures was high even before the lockdown.

“Regardless of COVID-19, we have done public hospital work,” he said.

“The backlog has always been there and has fallen into our lap. Now it’s just getting worse. We’re happy to help, but our priority is our private patients.”

To help patients access the private healthcare system, Hurstville Private was the first in Australia to launch Self-Pay Surgery, which allows uninsured patients to pay in advance of necessary procedures.

A popular model in the UK, it is similar to how a private health insurance fund works, but without having to wait several years for a joint procedure.

“The largest waiting lists are typically for orthopedic, ophthalmological or diagnostic screening,” Adams said.

“It’s a problem that will exist for two to three years.”

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