You probably don’t want to have a heart attack or cancer diagnosis in October in NSW, AMA boss says

By Melissa Davey Medical editor
Doctors in the ICU unit at St Vincent’s hospital, Sydney
The ICU unit at St Vincent’s hospital, Sydney. Specialists are being pulled out of clinics, where they see patients with non-coronavirus issues, to work on Covid, doctors say. Photograph: Carly Earl/The Guardian

Cardiologists and renal physicians are being called in to help out in Covid wards in New South Wales as the hospital system braces for an increase in patients.

This is having an impact on non-Covid health services, doctors say, creating severe workforce shortages with a reallocation of staff from other specialities and wards being claimed for case surges.

Anthony Byrne, a thoracic and respiratory physician with St Vincent’s Sydney, said doctors were being pulled out of clinics, where they see and diagnose patients with non-Covid issues, to work on Covid.

“It’s an important message,” Byrne said. “We are already seeing in our hospitals that there are doctors who are not respiratory or intensive care doctors caring for Covid patients. So we’re calling on our colleagues, they’re cardiologists, they’re renal doctors, and they’re coming in and really helping out.

“Why? Because we need help. There’s not enough of us.”

Byrne said this was “very unusual” given the highly specialised nature of medicine.

“I mean you train for years to specialise and you might just do stents and coronary arteries, or even within respiratory medicine you might just do asthma, and then all of a sudden, we need your help over on Covid,” Byrne said. “We now have neurologists looking after Covid patients, and cardiologists. Of course we all do general medical training to be a physician so that’s OK, but a lot of people haven’t done other medicine than their speciality for many years.”

The flow-on effect was that patients requiring non-Covid-related healthcare were being affected too.

The federal AMA president, Dr Omar Khorshid, told the ABC on Wednesday that while it was “very reasonable” for NSW to have a reopening plan, “our concern is the timing of that opening up, which could coincide with the peak in hospitalisations in NSW and just further devastate the health sector”.

“You probably don’t want to have a heart attack or be diagnosed with cancer in October in NSW, and really we need to do everything we can to avoid our hospitals suffering from opening up too early,” he said.

Dr Byrne agreed.

“I saw another patient today and he’s just got a new diagnosis of suspected lung cancer, but we need to do another procedure to really confirm it,” Byrne said.

“Now it’s really difficult to do that procedure because the operating theatre times and staff are not available, and it takes longer to try to get that patient in for a procedure to diagnose their lung cancer. This is a workforce issue. Yes, the modelling says that there’s more capacity in terms of space, but you also need the staff.

“Research that came out of Melbourne after the second wave there last year shows staff are so fatigued, some of them don’t want to go back into the workforce. We are worried about that here. It’s not like we have reached the peak yet. This will still be with us for months, and think of all those operations that have been cancelled, all those patients that have all these other medical problems that haven’t seen a doctor for months. There’s going to be all of that to come, even after the worst of Covid.”

The president of the NSW branch of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Danielle McMullen, said there was pressure throughout all parts of the system and that “the downstream impact on doctor morale is alarming”.

“It’s astounding to see how much pressure hospitals were under before the crisis and when you think of what we’re facing now, it’s very confronting,” McMullen said.


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