A NSW central west hospital which cost the government more than $70 million has been unable to staff its maternity ward for almost two years due to staffing issues, a parliamentary inquiry has heard.
The new Parkes Hospital was completed in late 2015 at a cost of $72.8 million and was designed to accommodate birthing suits and maternity needs.
But a NSW parliamentary inquiry into regional healthcare on Wednesday heard the hospital’s maternity units have been left empty since June 2019.
Expectant mothers must instead travel to nearby Dubbo or Orange.
Parkes Shire Mayor Ken Keith said this was because a long-standing local doctor retired in mid-2019 and was never successfully replaced, while a midwife-led model at the hospital never materialised.
He also said the hospital’s two operating theatres are under-utilised, with both theatres sitting empty at least three days each week.
“This is not acceptable in a town with a population of 12,000 people and a shire population of 15,000 people,” Cr Keith said at the Dubbo hearing.
Parkes-based general practitioner Kerrie Stewart said there were at most eight full-time doctors in the town for 12,000 people.
The doctor shortage was so severe that standard general practitioner appointments in Parkes were often made a month in advance, while patients with pressing needs were often sent to the hospital.
Three of Parkes’ doctors are also on the cusp of retirement.
“Doctors are working weekends and extra days to provide COVID and flu clinics, often these clinics are also putting out fires, providing emergency scripts, referrals, organising medical appointments,” Dr Stewart said.
“(We) don’t have that critical mass of GPs.
“You feel torn because you would love to open the doors and let everybody come in, but that’s not possible … I can appreciate the patients’ absolute frustration and anger and disappointment.”
Cr Keith said Parkes Hospital was currently too understaffed to perform colonoscopies and on one occasion sent a man with a dislocated shoulder to Orange because an anaesthetist was not available.
He said Parkes Shire Council had in the past resorted to fundraising and hosting charity events to raise the money required to recruit GPs.
On Tuesday, a woman told the inquiry in Wellington that her mother died at Gulgong Multi-Purpose Service in September without a doctor present.
Hayley Olivares’ mother Dawn Trevitt, a 66-year-old Gulgong teacher, was taken to the facility by ambulance on September 15, 2020.
It took 35 minutes to connect Ms Trevitt with a doctor via Telehealth, by which time she had significantly deteriorated. She died within an hour.
Other patients in the medical centre north of Mudgee were left in the care of a cook while the two nurses on duty assisted Ms Trevitt.
Mrs Olivares was also critical of a NSW Health review into her mother’s death, saying it was not independent and arrived at flawed conclusions.
The report found an attending doctor would not have saved Ms Trevitt’s life.
“I’m not as convinced,” Mrs Olivares said.
Warrumbungle Shire Council deputy mayor Aniello Iannuzzi also said his region’s four hospitals were going without antibiotics and blood supplies.
“Sadly there are times, and the times are too frequent for my liking, where we run out of basic antibiotics to treat basic conditions,” Dr Iannuzzi said.
More than 700 people have made submissions to the inquiry.
NSW Labor health spokesman Ryan Park said in a statement on Wednesday: “The Berejiklian government points to hospital upgrades but bricks and mortar don’t save lives – doctors, nurses and paramedics do.”