When secrecy is unhealthy

HUNTER New England Health’s repeated refusals to reveal how many emergency medical staff work at John Hunter Hospital will be read as an admission that the answer is: ‘‘not enough’’.

It is widely rumoured that the state’s busiest emergency department is severely understaffed compared to those elsewhere in the state.

It is also assumed by many that this disadvantage persists because of a historical tendency by the government to discriminate against the Hunter Region.

These rumours and assumptions may not be true, but the health service’s decision to keep its staffing levels secret from the public won’t help dispel them.

Indeed, given the government’s recent abandonment of a commitment to fix the underfunding of cancer services at the Calvary Mater hospital, cynicism about its attitude to healthcare in Newcastle is riding high.

Nor is it comforting to hear the state opposition joining the chorus of criticism. It was Labor, after all, during its long and arrogant tenure, that shaved the Hunter’s public hospital system to the bone.

Irrespective of blame, however, evidence is mounting that the system is close to breaking point.

One big problem is sheer lack of hospital beds. Another is a shortage of funds to hire enough staff. Still another is the over-stretching of ambulance resources.

All of these problems can appear to converge on emergency departments, creating conditions ripe for disaster.

In recent days, cases have emerged of patients being forced to wait far too long for appropriate care. The report in this newspaper today of an 83-year-old man sent home from the John Hunter Hospital with an undiagnosed fractured skull and vertebrae should sound a dire warning in the office of the minister for health.

The health service claims a bed occupancy rate of about 80 per cent, a figure that – on the surface – suggests a comfortable buffer.

But when the hospital that matters most, the workhorse John Hunter, is put under the microscope and all but actual ward beds are stripped away, some suggest the real rate is about 105 per cent. Even with the best-managed ‘‘hot-bedding’’ system, such occupancy levels are dangerous.

It’s time the Hunter’s state members of parliament took the initiative on this matter. Waiting for a tragedy is the wrong approach, both clinically and politically.

Solar mysteries

NO wonder some customers of solar electricity installer Sanctuary Energy are disappointed. The company says it has been ‘‘forced’’ to alter contracts with some customers, slashing their solar rebates.

The company has accused Ausgrid of losing applications to sign up 80 of its customers to the state government’s controversial and now-defunct 60 cent/ kilowatt deal. Ausgrid, however, says the applications were never received.

It’s a shame that episodes such as this cast a shadow over the reputation of the solar power industry, at a time when that industry is vulnerable because of the withdrawal of government support.

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