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From 6pm this Friday, Melburnians will finally be free to leave the city and head to some of the beautiful places for which regional Victoria is so famous. The Great Ocean Road, Phillip Island and the mighty Murray River. It’s an exciting time for all of us after so long locked down.
But as Victoria becomes one this weekend, healthcare workers in rural and regional areas are bracing for a perfect storm.
Victoria’s regional destinations, such as the Great Ocean Road, are preparing for an influx of visitors.Credit:iStock
Every December, our regional hospitals prepare for their populations to swell by up to 15 times. This brings with it a major jump in seasonal injuries; picture the overconfident bushwalkers with busted knees or backs, the adventurous kids (and adults) suffering from heatstroke after a long day at the beach, the forgetful road-tripper who leaves their medication at home and suffers a relapse in an unfamiliar town – the list goes on.
And that’s before we get to the increase in heart attacks, stroke and other acute issues that inevitably follow such massive inflows of visitors.
And this year, COVID-19 will be in the mix, too. The Burnet Institute predicts our summer holidays will coincide with peak COVID-19 related hospital admissions across the state.
Until now, this demand has been steadily rising in Melbourne’s hospitals while the regions have largely been spared. But as the great summer migration begins, this will change. And the recent outbreaks in Mildura and Shepparton show just how quickly this virus can put a chokehold on a regional town, putting unimaginable pressure both on health services and other critical infrastructure such as supermarkets.
Queues at Shepparton’s COVID testing hub in early September.Credit:Eddie Jim
Earlier this month, we brought together dozens of rural and regional health service executives to discuss their preparedness for a summer like no other. They spoke of issues such as availability of personal protective equipment, ageing infrastructure, and ventilation concerns. But one issue stood head and shoulders above all the others: workforce.
The executives spoke about the unsustainable levels of exhaustion and burnout among nurses, doctors and other workers who have spent the past 20 months fighting COVID-19, many without a meaningful break. They spoke of the additional strain on workers in bushfire-affected regions, many of whom are still suffering the effects of trauma from the appalling fires of the past few years and are preparing to do it all over again as this year’s fire season fast approaches.
They detailed rising rates of staff absence due to physical and mental illness and occasions when they, the executives, were forced to work night shifts caring for patients because there was literally nobody left to call in.
A shortage of healthcare workers in rural and regional areas is nothing new, but it has been made so much worse by the pandemic. Our closed borders have put a stop to skilled migration which has historically provided so many of our healthcare workers.
And the flood of cashed-up sea and tree-changers has made affordable accommodation for workers rarer than hen’s teeth in many towns. This means that even if we can attract nurses and doctors to our regions, they may have to resort to long and expensive stays in hotels while they secure a home locally, or give up trying and move back to the city.
The Victorian government has promised to import 1000 healthcare workers to reduce a shortage across the state, and it’s investing in initiatives such as rest and recovery spaces and on-site counselling to offset the risk of burnout.
These are great investments, but 1000 workers won’t be enough to solve the problem. This month, there were more than 300 healthcare jobs advertised in Victoria’s south-west region alone. Multiply that across the state and you can understand why this issue is front-of-mind for our health sector leaders.
Public hospital staff are used to working hard, under difficult circumstances. But there is a genuine fear in the system that our workers are running out of steam. Government talks very consistently about the need to support them, but the blunt reality is no amount of investment in worker wellbeing programs can fix the chronic shortage of psychologists, counsellors and mental health workers needed to implement them in regional areas overnight.
So, as you plan your getaway this year, think about the things you can do to stay safe and well at your destination. Remember to pack your medication. If you feel unwell, get a COVID test and don’t travel. Hard as it might be, try not to go too crazy with the adventure sports, the partying or the booze. And last but definitely not least – get vaccinated!
Because if you’re unlucky enough to need an ambulance, GP or emergency department, there’s a very good chance you’ll encounter a stressed and stretched service. And you will almost certainly be cared for by a healthcare worker sweating under the weight of heavy, hot protective gear who can only dream of the time that they will be the ones on holiday.
Tom Symondson is the CEO of the Victorian Healthcare Association.
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