Concern grows over stretched Vic hospitals

Patients and experts are voicing concern over the strain being placed on Victoria's health system.
Patients and experts are voicing concern over the strain being placed on Victoria's health system.

When endometriosis sufferer Tess Nicholson heard IVF treatments were recommencing after a COVID-induced pause in Victoria she felt a "major wave of emotions".

"I was afraid, I felt like endo and these other surgeries were just being looked past," she told AAP on Friday.

The Shepparton woman has battled painful endometriosis symptoms for several years and after giving birth to a son 17 months ago she was hit with another flare up.

While navigating pandemic restrictions and lockdowns in 2021, Ms Nicholson found a specialist and was finally booked in for surgery this March.

"Now that's been completely cancelled and delayed indefinitely, so I feel like a sitting duck," she said.

Endometriosis surgery is not classified as an urgent procedure and women across Victoria have faced long delays to treatment over the past two years.

Private and public hospital surgeries have periodically been subjected to state government-imposed caps since the pandemic began, leading to a growing backlog of patients awaiting surgery.

A petition calling for the government to reclassify endometriosis surgery has garnered more than 8500 signatures in six days.

"Endometriosis is not an elective surgery, it's the same as IVF - we don't choose to have endometriosis and we don't choose to be infertile," petition organiser Amanda Waaldyk told AAP.

She is calling for the state government to look at how elective surgery is classified, particularly for those with chronic illnesses.

"Otherwise women are living in this chronic, diabolical situation," she said.

"Most of them are then having to go to the emergency rooms, which is clogging up the hospital system even further."

On top of the surgery caps, an emergency 'code brown' alert was activated for the wider public health system this week for the first time in Victoria's history.

Private hospitals are also impacted, with staff called in to assist the public system during an emergency.

The president of Private Cancer Physicians of Australia Christopher Steer, a cancer specialist in regional Victoria, described a system that is "stretched to its limits".

"It's all about staffing, but we're trying to maintain care as much as possible," he told AAP.

"It's staffing, acutely in the hospitals and in the chemotherapy division.

"Some clinical trial units have shut down or been affected, we need to ensure they're still running.

"Radiology and pathology services, they're stretched, every aspect is stretched."

With fewer overall cancer diagnoses since the pandemic began, clinicians have been bracing for more late-stage cancer presentations.

"We know there's been less diagnoses made over the last two years, so we're assuming there are going to be some presentations in the later stages," he said.

"Delaying a diagnosis could have a detrimental impact on a patient's prognosis and treatment."

Associate Professor Steer said some of his patients were having their cancer treatments delayed due to contracting COVID-19, which was also impacting service provision.

He said the private system was also struggling to find enough rapid antigen tests to allow nurses and specialists to continue working.

Their concerns about the lack of access to RATs have been made "loud and clear" to state and federal government, Dr Steer said.

Australian Associated Press