NSW must fix health system so it can offer more to sick children

  • Published March 13, 2023

Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 2023

It is hard to believe that a city the size of Sydney does not offer heart transplant surgery to children, forcing patients and their families to travel to Melbourne instead.

The journey poses health risks and exacerbates the stress and trauma of an already frightening situation for these children and their families.

Two Sydney mothers who spoke to Kate Aubusson for her report in today’s Sun-Herald put forward a compelling argument to establish such a service at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

Doctors at Westmead have the skill and the experience; they performed the procedures out of necessity in 2021, when the Victorian border closed.
And while only a handful of NSW patients require the costly surgery each year, that is enough to justify a standalone transplant service in Sydney, according to international guidelines.

But as Aubusson points out, a significant barrier to establishing the service is the fact the Children’s Hospital is already struggling with chronic underfunding and a staffing crisis, which means new operating theatres are not even being used.

This is jeopardising the care and quality of life of some of our most vulnerable citizens. The closure of new theatres is particularly galling given the elective surgery waiting list for children in NSW is soaring, despite efforts to get through a backlog caused by years of COVID-19 restrictions.

Latest figures show that at the end of last year, more than 4000 children were awaiting surgery in NSW. More than 1000 of them had been waiting longer than clinically recommended to undergo their procedure – a fivefold increase compared with before the pandemic.

While the procedures these children are waiting for are deemed “elective”, many are critical to a child’s quality of life and putting them off risks long-term complications or developmental delays.

It is appalling that so many children in NSW are now suffering like this because NSW Health has not fixed a staffing crisis which has been building for years. A Health Services Union survey of almost 4500 workers found half are thinking about quitting the industry in the next five years.

The new state government must make it a priority to clear the paediatric surgical backlog, but to do that it will need to improve conditions for healthcare workers to stop them leaving, and hire more workers to take the pressure off a system that is at crisis point.

The federal government must also open up access to beds in aged care and rehabilitation, to clear hospital “bed block” and free hospitals for those patients who need acute and surgical care.

Finally, the new state government must also expedite a review, begun but not yet completed, into the need for a paediatric heart transplant service in Sydney. At the very least, the parents whose children need this service deserve to know the outcome of that review.

It is critical that the big problems plaguing the health system in NSW are fixed, so the state is able to offer life-changing services like heart transplants to children who need them, particularly in light of the pioneering paediatric surgical work conducted in NSW by the likes of Dr Victor Chang and Dr Albert Shun.

As mother Elizabeth Mirofordis told Aubusson, “Why are we sending kids to Melbourne for heart transplants when we know Westmead is capable of doing this? This is madness.”