No hiding from health crisis

October 13, 2023 7:00 AM
Libby Mettam
WA Liberal Leader

After going to ground last week to avoid questions about the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl at Perth Children’s Hospital, Roger Cook was back on WA soil this week.

Yet despite copping a grilling for laying low, it was clear he was still ducking for cover and attempting to spin some good news stories. 

It can be the only explanation for why, on the morning when the deaths of six children in our hospital system as a result of SAC-1 incidents made the headlines, the Premier held a press conference to open a playground. 

No, it’s not a joke. 

As parents grappled with how these children died in our hospitals, the Premier was all smiles in South Perth for an ‘important milestone in the Perth Zoo masterplan’.

He then had the audacity to accuse the Opposition of not caring about conservation when questioned about his priorities. 

It would almost be comical if the issues in health weren’t so serious. 

For while the Premier was busy opening cafes and playgrounds, the annual health reports tabled this week paint a picture of a health system that is undoubtedly in crisis.

The Child and Adolescent Health Service (CAHS) annual report highlighted a service that is buckling under pressure on a number of fronts.    

The deaths of six children in our hospitals as a result of SAC-1 clinical incidents, which are attributable to health care provision (or lack thereof) rather than the patient’s underlying condition or illness, is untenable.

Yet when asked about them, the Premier’s tone-deaf response was to say that it was the same number that died two years ago. 

He then later advised that three were actually declassified, which means three children still died as a result of medical errors essentially.

While I accept that mistakes happen and our frontline medical staff are working under extraordinary pressure doing double and triple shifts amid workforce shortages, it is still three children too many.

There is no way to spin that. 

We know the year before one of those deaths was Aishwarya Aswath. 

The seven-year-old died after waiting for care for two hours in the emergency department sparking a raft of reviews, inquiries and importantly, recommendations on how to improve the service to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

Incredibly, the annual report revealed one of those key recommendations to establish a supernumerary resuscitation team in the emergency department has still not been implemented. 

This dedicated resuscitation team is supposed to be rostered on every shift to ensure that staff are not called away from their key duties in the ED to attend to resuscitations.

It’s been two years since that recommendation was made. 

It’s incredulous it has not been urgently prioritised given the potentially tragic consequences. 

The report also highlighted a blowout in elective surgery wait times and a severe under-funding of critical child development services such as paediatrics and clinical psychology.

The number of children waiting longer than 30 days for category one surgery – the most urgent classification – has doubled in the last year.

Almost 40 per cent are waiting more than a year for category three surgery. 

While elective, it’s important to note that these surgeries are not optional extras. Any delays can lead to long-term poorer health outcomes, learning and behavioural issues. 

I spoke on behalf of one mother this week who had waited three years for ear surgery to address hearing loss for her four-year-old son. 

He had surgery on Monday only to discover that the suspected cause of the loss was not the issue, and it is back to square one. 

His mother now fears he will be permanently impacted by the effects of hearing loss after so many years of compromised development.  

This is not an issue that has come from left field. The demand for both elective surgery and child development services has been on an upward trend for the last decade. 

Yet it appears that the government has been caught on the hop scrambling to work out a plan for a plan but with no appetite to fund it, despite a $5bn surplus. 

The issues plaguing the mental health sector in this State were also once again highlighted in the Mental Health Advisory Service annual report.

The agency reported its very existence was under threat due to a lack of funding amid a 75 per cent increase in the number of serious issues reported in mental health facilities compared with 2021-22.

It reported four sexual safety breaches for children in the last year yet also stated that a lack of bedroom and bathroom locks remains an ongoing safety risk in mental health facilities.

It’s hard to comprehend that after the alleged horrific sexual assault reported at Perth Children’s Hospital that simple safety measures in mental health units haven’t been fast-tracked. 

The delays are incomprehensible given the potential outcomes.

The WA Labor Government has recorded $17 billion in surpluses over the past three years. 

It has the capacity to make meaningful investment in to fix the mess created under its watch. 

We can’t afford to wait for the next report or incident review before it takes the urgent action our health system needs.

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