Hunter New England Health is employing palliative care specialist doctors and nurses in response to complaints

HUNTER New England Health is boosting palliative care services in response to criticism it is failing the district’s terminally ill, and after NSW Government recognition of the need for a focus on palliative care.

The health district will employ a new palliative care service director and registrar, in addition to a newly-employed palliative care staff specialist at Maitland, and extra specialist palliative care nurses at Maitland, Tamworth, Armidale and Glen Innes.

Hunter New England Health will host a palliative care roundtable at Tamworth as part of a NSW Government initiative to improve palliative care services in response to serious criticism by the NSW Cancer Council and campaigning by Push for Palliative founder and retired palliative care specialist Dr Yvonne McMaster.

Reports to the NSW Government from 2011 show $30 million per year in additional palliative care funding can save up to $140 million annually.

NSW Cancer Council Hunter and Central Coast regional manager Shane Connell and Hunter Cancer Action Network spokeswoman Barbara Gaudry have called on cancer patients, carers and families in the two regions who have been affected by advanced or terminal cancer in the past five years to tell their stories. They are invited to phone 13 11 20 until April 30 to help the Cancer Council assess the availability and experience of palliative care.

“The information collected by Cancer Council will help paint a picture of the significant difference that palliative care staff make to people’s lives, as well as the impact that gaps in access to palliative care have on the community,” Mr Connell said.

The Cancer Council said NSW had a shortfall of 10 palliative care specialists, 129 specialist palliative care nurses and there was a lack of culturally-appropriate palliative care for Indigenous people with cancer.

The campaign comes after data released in January showed few John Hunter Hospital and Calvary Mater patients were being referred to palliative care.

One in 10 patients had no mention in their notes that they were dying at the time of death, only one in 10 was having a pain score done, and out of 100 people none was coded as palliative at the time of death, Hunter intensive care specialist Dr Peter Saul said.

In 2016 Rutherford woman Fiona Murphy’s family went public about the lack of after hours palliative care services and the impact it had on the final months of Mrs Murphy’s life, and on her family. 

The information collected by Cancer Council will help paint a picture of the significant difference that palliative care staff make to people’s lives, as well as the impact that gaps in access to palliative care have on the community.

NSW Cancer Council Hunter and Central Coast manager Shane Connell

Hunter New England Health executive director greater metropolitan health services, Karen Kelly, said the district recognised the importance of palliative care and was committed to ensuring people with a terminal illness could access specialist palliative care services.

The 17-bed Mercy Hospice at Calvary Mater Newcastle was the main public palliative care inpatient unit for the greater Newcastle region, and the hospital provided a 24-hour palliative care outreach service with advice and treatment for palliative patients over the phone, or in their homes when required, Ms Kelly said.

Calvary Mater was the centre of the district’s network of palliative care services, she said. The district also relied on “nurse-led palliative care” through community health nurses working with patients’ GPs.

”As part of this arrangement palliative care medical officers are on call 24 hours a day to provide support and advice to patients, their loved ones and staff. Staff members with skills in palliative care and end of life care are employed at all of our hospitals. Further we are focused on upskilling clinical staff in pain management, diagnosis and communication so they can better care for dying patients,” Ms Kelly said.

John Hunter Children’s Hospital provides palliative care services as part of the NSW State Paediatric Palliative Care Service. The hospital’s paediatric palliative care service includes a specialist paediatric palliative care doctor, a senior nurse, a senior social worker and an occupational therapist.

We are focused on upskilling clinical staff in pain management, diagnosis and communication so they can better care for dying patients.

Hunter New England Health executive director Karen Kelly.

“Care is provided locally but also through telehealth to connect to the families of children who have a life-limiting illness throughout northern NSW,” Ms Kelly said.

John Hunter Hospital renal patients are supported by a part-time palliative care specialist, and a full time end of life care practitioner has been employed at John Hunter since 2015.

Maitland Hospital provides a 24-hour seven day per week palliative care service to Maitland and surrounding areas, with a full time and part time palliative care specialist, seven nurses working the equivalent of 4.67 full time equivalent nursing positions and a social worker.

Government palliative care services were supported by non-government organisations, Ms Kelly said.

Hunter New England Health executive director for rural and regional health services, Susan Heyman, said specialist palliative care nurses would be at Maitland, Tamworth, Armidale and Glen Innes to improve services in those areas.

The health district had committed to ensuring a specialist palliative care nurse position at Tamworth would continue beyond June, 2019 when a three-year NSW Health grant under the palliative care flexibile funding pool expires.