16,500 on Hunter hospital waiting list

Patients are being turned away from Hunter public hospital specialist clinics because of ‘‘overwhelming demand and extremely long waiting times’’, according to Hunter New England Local Health District documents.

The long delay before people join more than 16,554 patients officially waiting for specialist appointments, was uncovered in documents obtained by the Newcastle Herald. 

They reveal that in many cases outpatient clinics are unable to offer appointments and are instead forced to place patients in a queue to get on the official waiting list.

There are 40 speciality clinics at John Hunter Hospital and the Royal Newcastle Centre, which last financial year recorded 110,000 appointments. The number is expected to increase 10,000 this financial year, to 120,000.

GPs described outpatient services as ‘‘out of control’’, with rising patient numbers, massive waiting times, doctor shortages and over-booked clinics.

Worst affected are children, the poor, the elderly, and the chronically ill, for whom outpatient clinics are the only available medical option.

Hunter Urban Medicare Local executive officer Dr Mark Foster said there had been ‘‘very significant complaints for some time’’ from GPs trying to refer patients to clinics.

Dr Foster said that in some cases patients were forced to travel to Sydney to see specialists or attempt to find a private specialist in the Hunter to see them for ‘‘minimal cost’’.

 He said patient demand, staffing levels, recruitment difficulties and communication between GPs and the health service were all contributing factors.

‘‘The GPs are right – having clinics that have no space to book people in is not a service,’’ he said.

‘‘Something needs to be done about it, as it can leave patients in very difficult positions ... waiting times can easily be 12 months or longer. There is no question Hunter New England Health would freely acknowledge what is happening is not acceptable and they are working hard to try and address it.’’

Hunter New England Health chief executive Michael DiRienzo agreed the majority of outpatient clinics were ‘‘currently at capacity’’.

Mr DiRienzo said in the three financial years to June the number of patients on waiting lists had jumped 40per cent.

He said the health service was working to increase the number of new patients seen at the clinics each year.

‘‘John Hunter Hospital and the Royal Newcastle Centre is the major tertiary referral hospital for northern NSW, meaning there is high demand for all outpatient specialist services,’’ he  said. ‘‘Referrals to outpatient clinics are triaged in line with clinical urgency.’’

Clinics with the longest wait times are orthopaedic, ear, nose and throat, maxillofacial (upper jaw and face), and neurosurgery.

The Herald was supplied with documents from several clinics advising GPs that patients could not be offered appointments.

In one case, a GP was advised that due to ‘‘overwhelming demand and extremely long waiting times’’, a child could not be provided an appointment at the paediatric orthopaedic clinic. The child’s family was informed they could remain in the queue to get an appointment, contact one of the private specialists listed or get an updated referral if the condition deteriorated.

He said he had received similar letters from other departments.

‘‘The wait period for an orthopaedic appointment is about 12 months, which is terrible. The John Hunter Hospital hasn’t appointed any new orthopaedic surgeons for a very long time, and there is still a massive gap in the service to the community,’’ he said.

GRIM PICTURE

- 40 outpatient clinics at John Hunter Hospital and Royal Newcastle Centre

- 16,554 on waiting lists

- 110,000 appointments last financial year

- 120,000 appointments expected this financial year

- 40% increase in waiting lists from 2008-09 to 2011-12

- GPs worried by delays

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