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Wednesday, 15 February 2012
Page: 1480


Ms GRIERSON (Newcastle) (19:46): I rise to speak on the release last week of the external review of medical oncology services at the Hunter New England Local Health District. The report was commissioned after 2011 media attention on inadequate cancer services in the Hunter region. Reports told of too many people with life-critical cancer suffering from a medical bureaucracy that moved, according to the Newcastle Herald, with glacial slowness. Story after story of personal anxiety and despair was showcased. A typical wait to see a specialist in the Hunter region was seven weeks, in comparison to the benchmark of two weeks for cancer patients awaiting medical oncology treatment in Sydney. On demographics alone, the Hunter region had half the medical oncologists it should have had. People were dying in the time between diagnosis and seeing a specialist or between diagnosis and the commencement of treatment.

The public and the media raised their voices for remediation of these failings. New South Wales Health with Hunter New England Health and Calvary Mater Newcastle began an external review of oncology services across the region. In August last year it was reported that a draft report had been completed and the New South Wales government was acting on the recommendations. But the report remained secret. At my request the then federal Minister for Health, Nicola Roxon, wrote to the New South Wales health minister, Jillian Skinner, for details. Again, no report details were made available.

I find it alarming that any state health minister would be happy to take federal funding but not be willing to be accountable for its expenditure. Whilst our health and hospital reforms have begun to make a difference there is still much to do to bring transparency to resourcing levels, treatment and care standards and patient outcomes. But the report has now been released and we are told that of the 24 recommendations made in the review, 21 will be supported by Hunter New England Health and Calvary Mater Newcastle.

There is insufficient time in this debate to go to all the recommendations but I mention two. Recommendation No. 2 is that there be no further expansion of sites in the Hunter New England Health area until there is an appropriate increase in medical oncologists. It is a bit catch-22. It sounds sensible on the surface as long as it is constantly reviewed against actual need and actual resources and not used as an excuse to defer justified expansion or to ignore serious recruitment of medical oncologists.

Recommendation No. 5 is for the reinstatement of the triage oncology nurse and that role's expansion to include coordination of chemotherapy treatments in the day oncology unit and the Inpatient Oncology Unit. The review found the current system of registrars is inefficient, contributing to longer waiting lists. Anyone who has sat in a hospital knows that in the hospital environment registrars are stretched thin and often are not available. A dedicated trained triage oncology nurse could make a real difference.

Of the three recommendations not supported I highlight two that recommended structural change—recommendation No. 22 goes to achieving a consistent approach to nursing practice and recommendation No. 10 suggests a holistic approach by the many cancer related services. So apparently a unified and integrated approach is not supported. As a consumer, that is what I would really like to see. As the member for Newcastle, I think the people I represent would like that possibility explored further and I do not intend to let that ideal slip away. If patient need and care was central to any structure of cancer services then I think integration of services and the setting up of pathways that link those services to guide both patients and their medical professionals would be critical to optimising successful outcomes in patient treatment and care. I would also think they would be critical to removing any inefficiencies and duplication. I think a consistent high-level approach by most practitioners would also be something that every patient would want to see.

Measures are being taken from the recommendations made but the main sticking point to implementation and achieving significant improvement is that New South Wales Health states that HNE Health and Calvary Mater Newcastle plan to work together in order to 'free-up existing dollars in order to invest in the priorities'. Everyone sitting here knows that that is code for 'they just need to squeeze those health dollars a little more and spread it around differently and all will be fixed'. That is just an insult.

After years of inadequate resourcing, I acknowledge by both the previous Labor government, according to the report, and the Liberal government, any catch-up will require additional funds, and those funds need to be injected now by the current New South Wales government. The Herald reports that that could be up to $10 million a year. The review found Newcastle's services are understaffed and workers are under pressure. It reveals that people are not receiving treatment that they would otherwise receive in places like Sydney and they are dying as a result. So I call on the local state government MPs—all of them—to do the job they were elected to do and stand up for the people of Newcastle and the Hunter so that we do have the oncology services we are entitled to and need.

The SPEAKER: While I can understand the enthusiasm of the member for Cowan, he should not stand while another honourable member has the call. I call the honourable member for Cowan.