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No cure in sight for doctor shortage

Former surgeon Geoff Pritchard worries how Tumut Hospital would have coped had this bus crash last week on Talbingo Mountain been more serious.

Former surgeon and Snowy Valleys Councillor Geoff Pritchard has taken aim at the health service and its inability to attract procedural doctors to the Tumut Hospital.

Highlighting last week’s bus crash on Talbingo Mountain, Dr Pritchard said today’s capabilities at Tumut Hospital failed to measure up to the past.

“The recent Talbingo Mountain bus crash again highlights the need for the Tumut hospital to be staffed constantly by doctors and for procedural doctors to be resident in our locality,” Dr Pritchard said in a letter published in today’s Tumut and Adelong Times.

“On this occasion, it was fortunate that a bus, after brake faiure, carrying 20 people was prevented from falling off the mountain by crossing the upgoing traffic lane into the top side of the mountain. There were no serious casualties.

“However, the outcome could have been devastating if there had been oncoming traffic resulting in a head-on collision, or if the bus had gone the other way and fallen off the side of the highway into the valley.

He compared last week’s crash to a 1991 incident when a bus went over the western side of the mountain, resulting in 27 casualties to Tumut Hospital.

“Tumut hospital in 1991 was a sub-regional centre and It still has the only operating theatre in the region,” Dr Pritchard said.

“At that time I was the specialist surgeon and we had several competent resident  GP anaesthetists and GP proceduralists. Now we have zero. There are frequent occasions when there is not even a doctor on call at the hospital. This also results in the ambulance services being burdened by unnecessary transfers to Wagga.”

Dr Pritchard said the only surgical services at Tumut Hospital presently are by periodic visits from Wagga, with the surgeon returning that night

“It’s a third world service,” Dr Pritchard said.

“Our area is growing and has major industries. Not to have an adequate health service is a deterrence for people to stay here or to move here. There are 120 specialists in Wagga,but no procedural doctors here.”

Dr Pritchard has previously questioned the health service’s motivation to employ procedural doctors in Tumut and once more said he believed “they weren’t really trying”, arguing the health service saved money by not having a doctor in Tumut.

“It seems to me that the area health service is happy not to have a doctor on call,” Dr Pritchard said. “It has also talked about trailing a midwife-led birthing service if so, the chances of attracting a resident GP/Obstetrician would be diminished.”

The health service, however, has categorically denied that the provision of doctors in Tumut is a funding issue.

Murrumbidgee Local Health District (MLHD) wants doctors in our district hospitals as much as our communities,” Murrumbidgee Health Service CEO Jill Ludford told the Times recently.

“It is not a funding issue – it’s the availability of doctors.

“With reducing numbers of General Practitioners (GPs) in rural towns, MLHD is exploring different models for Medical Officers to support our smaller rural hospitals,” Ms Ludford said.

“It should be acknowledged that doctors for rural hospitals are difficult to recruit and a number of incentives are offered, including training and education opportunities.”

The health service pointed out that this year there’s a decrease in the number of doctors choosing to train in general practice and to work in rural NSW.

She said the health service had recently introduced a course for rural doctors to receive further training in emergency patient management, upskilling doctors who have no recent experience working in an emergency department.

Ms Ludford said local residents who present to the emergency department at Tumut Hospital, even when a doctor isn’t available, would be treated by highly-trained registered nurses, skilled in emergency care.

In that situation, any patients who may require a high level of care would be transferred, generally to Wagga.

Tumut has about half a dozen doctors listed on the on-call rosters at the hospital, but that hasn’t prevented the hospital being without any doctors in recent months.

Tumut has also been without at GP obstetrician for close to half a year.