No other year has tested the state's health system like 2020. It was also the first full year on the job for Health Minister Sarah Courtney. Health reporter JESSICA WILLARD caught up with Ms Courtney to discuss the highs and lows.
JW: What one word would you use to describe 2020?
SC: Enormous. I think unprecedented has been used too many times, but it's been an enormous year and I think in saying that, there has obviously been the enormity of the health response, which has just been extraordinary. But the impact that COVID has had on the entire Tasmanian community, and continues to have on many businesses and people, and obviously we have seen Tasmanians who have lost their lives from COVID as well.
In other news:
JW: Did you ever think, taking on the Health portfolio last year, that you would be helping to steer the state through a global pandemic?
SC: Never in my wildest dreams. But it has been a coswonderful opportunity to see what our health system can do when it's put under extraordinary pressure. The thing for me that I take away as one of the great positives has been the way the health system has collaborated, across so many different areas. One of the challenges within a Health portfolio is the fact that it's inherently siloed through different levels of government, as well as the private and community sector. Having everyone come together in a single united response was extraordinary.
JW: A report on the outbreak in the North-West revealed shortcomings in the hospital's culture. You've welcomed the report and its recommendations, but what is being done to improve the staff culture within the THS?
SC:Fundamentally if we look at the beginning of the year, and before we even had COVID, we'd started integrating new structure within health. One of the key outcomes of that new structure was around governments and accountability across the system and to look at local decision making. And so COVID has obviously put up a lot of challenges around the implementation of that throughout the year. However, I think there is still a lot more benefits to flow from that new structure as we further embed that into the system. I also think that the report we've seen from Mr Melick, gives us a lot of things we can improve upon and indeed that's the very reason we look to independent reports and inquiries such as this. Such as the one we had earlier in the year - is to look at how we can do things better. We know as a health system, as with other parts of government, and indeed businesses, when we are put under pressure we all act in the best way possible and we need to look at how we can continually learn to always improve what we do.
JW: But this isn't the first time culture problems have been raised. Last year an auditor general report into the effectiveness of the state's four biggest hospitals also identified longstanding cultural problems. Do you acknowledge there is still a problem?
SC: I acknowledge we still have some way to go. But saying that, I also do acknowledge that we've seen some really good gains this year. I think the pressure of COVID and the collaboration has seen some barriers of communication broken down and being able to ensure we've got those better lines of communication. I think there are learnings we can still implement across our system. As we further embed the governance structure, I think that will assist that. Also, as part of our Our Healthcare Future document that I launched a few weeks ago, we're looking at having that conversation with both the workforce and the community, to look at what we can do so that we do have a shared vision for our health system. And, part of that is making sure we get the feedback from everyone in the health system.
JW: The pandemic isn't over. Are you confident Tasmania is ready for another potential outbreak, increased cases?
SC: I am confident that we are as prepared as we can be. I am still very cognizant that COVID is incredibly infectious. We've seen that in other jurisdictions around Australia, as recently as the past couple of months, how quickly things can turn. So I am very conscious that we need to maintain our readiness in the health system, as well as look to our community to keep doing the great work that they've been doing. We can have an extraordinarily prepared healthcare system, but ultimately Tasmania's resilience to coronavirus relies on our whole community, doing the right thing.
JW: What is the plan around vaccines and distribution? What planning is happening to roll out a vaccine in Tassie?
SC: An extraordinarily large amount of work is going on. There are regular conversations with the Commonwealth and myself, both from the departmental perspective as well as ministers. There is a lot of really positive progress going on and we've had some really good experiences in Tasmania of max vaccinations in recent years, with meningococcal. So we're working with the federal government on both the provision and delivery of vaccines, as well as the best model of delivery for those vaccines. I also am conscious that we have some great capability across our primary care sector, as well as our pharmacies too. So, ultimately the most important thing is the way we deliver vaccines is safe for consumers and so I will take expert advice on that.
JW: What stage is the redevelopment of LGH Ward 4K at? When will it be finished?
SC:So finished for the first half of next year, and from what I've seen so far, it's looking absolutely brilliant. I really appreciate how difficult it's been for the staff and patients there, to be able to continue doing the amazing work they do, while it has been a building site. And it's been a great credit to the staff that they've been able to continue to do that. With regards to the broader masterplanning program for the hospital, we have been engaged with key stakeholders on that in recent weeks and months. We're looking to have a first draft of what we might look at for that, by the end of the year, and then look at how we engage with the community with that to go forward. It's a really important piece of work, not only to ensure we have a good plan for the future, but also to deliver some of the things in the short-term - such as around capacity in beds.
JW: It's been three years this month since Calvary Healthcare submitted its unsolicited bid for a private co-located hospital in Launceston. Yet, little to no new details have been made public. Is the government committed to making this bid a reality and when are we likely to see some progress?
SC:I think the more investment we see in healthcare, whether it's public or private in Tasmania is an incredibly welcomed outcome. I think here in Northern Tasmania the community would be very excited to be able to see further services delivered here in the north of the state. That bid is still within the Co-ordinator General's office, so that process is still continuing at arms length from my office. So I can't comment on the detail of it. But we've seen the strength of having a co-located private hospital in the South next to the Royal Hobart and there are enormous benefits, not just for service delivery, but also the potential for the recruitment of specialists to the north of the state.
JW: There are more than 11,000 Tasmanians waiting for elective surgery - this was a problem long before the pandemic. The government has committed $45.5 million to help address this. Do you think this is enough? What's being done to ensure Tasmanians who need surgery, can get it?
SC: I am really pleased we have been able to deliver this money. I acknowledge the fact that we did see significant waiting lists prior to COVID, however obviously the pause in elective surgery throughout COVID has had a further impact on that. So I am expecting those numbers will remain, in the short-term, still quite high. However, this money is being rolled out, so I am hoping over the next year we will see upwards of 19,000 surgeries delivered and we are going to see over the next 18 months, 8500 additional surgeries on top of what we were already budgeted to deliver. So the team and the surgical specialists are working as to how to prioritise that money most appropriately, and that will look at how we can ensure those that are waiting longest, can obviously get their surgery.
- Part two of this interview will be published on Wednesday