POLL: Premature babies at risk

A SENIOR doctor fears premature babies at John Hunter Hospital are at risk of a serious condition that can cause permanent blindness because the hospital has not replaced its only child eye specialist.

Dr Chris Challinor, the former head of John Hunter Hospital opthalmology, said premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit had not been screened by a doctor on site for retinopathy of prematurity since he retired in October.

The specialist paediatric opthalmologist was scheduled to retire in June but worked three months for free so infants would be screened.

John Hunter Hospital general manager Michael Symonds said nurses had been trained to do weekly screening of newborns using a new technology called retcam, where images were sent to an ophthalmologist for assessment.

‘‘Retinopathy of prematurity’’ is abnormal blood vessel development in the retina of the eye and can be treated if detected early.

The loss means John Hunter is the only hospital in Australia with a neonatal intensive care unit and no paediatric opthalmologist – some Sydney hospitals have three.

‘‘I brought this to their attention, that I was going to retire, a year ago,’’ Dr Challinor said.

‘‘As far as I’m aware there’s no one actually on site screening for this, it’s fraught with the possibility of disaster.’’

The Newcastle Herald revealed yesterday John Hunter Hospital had closed its public outpatient specialist eye clinic.

Dr Challinor said the situation was doubly annoying  because when he found an overseas doctor to take over,  the hospital would not hire him because of ‘‘administrative inertia’’.

He gave the doctor his Toronto practice for free so he would take over the John Hunter role.

There are fewer than 30 paediatric opthalmologists in Australia.

In the past 25 years, Dr Challinor has not had more than three weeks holiday due to the importance of screening premature babies for retinopathy.

About two babies each year test positive, Dr Challinor said.

Mr Symonds said they planned to replace Dr Challinor and had offered the position to someone who had not accepted their terms.

He said nurses would continue to use retcam once the role was filled.

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