A packed meeting of around 500 people at Mullumbimby last night heard a heart-rending plea by a 12-year-old boy prone to epileptic fits for health authorities not to remove the local hospital’s overnight emergency doctor as it would put him at grave risk.
In his appeal, young Ethan Diehm said it was ‘very worrying’ for him and his mum and dad to know they could be ‘losing our hospital’s overnight doctor’.
‘My doctor says if I have a seizure I need to see a doctor there day or night, and I have to be accompanied by a doctor when I’m being transferred by ambulance,’ Ethan said.
‘It’s very worrying, if next time I have a seizure at night and there’s no doctor there, my mum and dad will be worried.’
He then put a question to Northern NSW Local Health District (NNSWLHD) chief executive Chris Crawford, who attended the meeting to explain the proposed tele-medicine trial for the hospital’s emergency department.
‘Mr Crawford, what if your family was in this situation? We must fight to save our services in the community,’ Ethan said to thunderous applause.
His dad Aaron said when his son had seizures, which could happen at any time of the night or early morning, ‘he needs to see a doctor’.
‘What right have you got, Mr Crawford, to put my family’s lives in danger?’ Mr Diehm, a local builder, asked to loud applause.
The Diehm family’s concerns were echoed by many at the meeting. Comments included ‘delayed care is care denied’, ‘Skype health is no substitute for a real doctor’, ‘this penny-pinching attitude doesn’t make sense: you can’t pick and choose when people get sick’.
Local doctor Liz Elliott, a member of the Save Our Hospital committee, asked, for the benefit of local government minister and Ballina MP Don Page who was sitting in the audience: ‘If we don’t have have a fire for two nights, are you going to close our fire stations?’
But it was a comment from the chair of the NNSWLHD board, Hazel Bridgett, which was most keenly welcomed by the large crowd.
Ms Bridgett was loudly applauded after she said, ‘we will never go ahead without the consent of nurses, which has always been the case’.
She said the board was ‘very concerned’ about the alarm in the community over the proposed trial, which she emphasised was ‘only a trial at this stage’.
Mr Crawford said public consultation on the pilot (to replace the overnight doctor with a video-conferencing system linked to Tweed Hospital operated by a nurse) was continuing, with last night’s meeting a part of it, and concerns would be addressed.
He presented data to try and justify the trial, saying it showed the hospital’s emergency department was ‘quiet on most nights’ and most patients presented were in the low- to medium-care category.
He said the Connecting Critical Care system had been ‘tried and tested’ at Coffs Harbour and Macksville Hospitals for six months last year with success and it was still being used, but on a doctor-to-doctor basis.
He said the system was currently being rolled out at Tweed Heads, Murwillumbah, Mullumbimby and Byron Bay hospitals and most of the shifts using it were on a doctor-to-doctor basis.
He said that as a result, it was ‘undisputably an enhancement and an extra tool’ for doctors at smaller hospitals to receive advice from doctors at larger hospitals.
Mr Crawford said the new system was ‘not about cost cutting’ but to ‘address a cost blowout’ and it made ‘economic sense’ at smaller hospitals.
He said both a doctor and nurse would be on shift at night during the trial to familiarise themselves with it.
‘If patient safety concerns can’t be addressed, then the trial on a nurse-to-doctor basis won’t be undertaken’, Mr Crawford said.
Scores of people then raised their hands to ask questions.
Dr Mike Heyning, a local Visiting Medical Officer (VMO), said the system was good as an an extra help for doctors but doctors ‘should not be replaced’.
‘It also doesn’t save any money, just provides better care,’ Dr Heyning said.
‘We’re told it’s not about replacing the overnight doctor but it sounds like an experiment to me.
‘And if that’s the case you’d need informed consent, so who here wants to give informed consent for a trial?’ he asked, but no-one raised their hands.
Mayoral candidate Cr Simon Richardson said he had to take his young daughter to Mullumbimby Hospital the other night and was concerned about the risk if they had to wait to be transferred to Tweed Hospital.
Many people said they moved to Mullumbimby to be close to a small hospital where care could be accessed much more easily than in the city.
One woman, whose brother nearly died recently after going home when a doctor couldn’t see him, said if it wasn’t for a doctor at the local hospital who administered antibiotics, he would have died.
‘Sometimes you need a doctor straight away; it’s not fair for a nurse to receive someone who’s nearly dying’.