Privatised Northern Beaches Hospital a dangerous shambles   

The state government promised a smooth transfer to the new Northern Beaches Hospital. But several weeks after opening the facility was in disarray.

In 2015, the then NSW Health Minister, Jillian Skinner, accused the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association of running an advertising “scare campaign” against the state government’s hospital privatisation plans.

We predicted privatisation would bring about a decline in the quality of care, patient satisfaction and staff morale, and make health services more expensive.

Members of the Coalition state government repeatedly called our campaign a lie.

Fast forward to the opening of the privatised Northern beaches Hospital (NBH) on 30 October 2018.

Within a fortnight of receiving its first patients it was obvious the hospital was a “shambles” with patients and staff reporting “chronically understaffed” units, as the Sydney Morning Herald put it.

The hospital repeatedly ran out of essentials such as insulin, adrenaline, antibiotics, drugs for heart failure and hypertension, dialysis fluids and central intravenous nutrition. Units also ran out of syringes, IV lines, medical swabs, saline bags, needles, wash cloths and alcohol rub and maternity pads.

“Nurses have filled their own car boots and back seats with basic medical equipment from the now-closed Manly Hospital as well as Mona Vale to replenish the new hospital’s stockrooms,” the Herald reported.

There was a bed shortage due to lack of staff and ED patients waited up to 17 hours for treatment. 

A patient needing a half-hour operation for a cut hand was bumped off the surgery list for five days in a row and a child had to wait eight hours in paediatrics for antihistamine. Relatives were forced to buy meals and even bottled water for patients due to food shortages.

Patient safety compromised

NSWNMA General Secretary, Brett Holmes, described the situation this way: “Emergency response teams unable to access patient areas because their swipe cards are not granting access during a critical incident; nurses and midwives running from one ward to another to find basic stores and drugs, inadequate training of staff to use new equipment, along with unsafe understaffing.”

NBH CEO, Deborah Latta, described these as “teething problems” but conceded that patient demand was “greater than anticipated”. Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, dismissed concerns, saying: “Whenever you build big new hospitals there are always some challenges.”

However, a senior NBH specialist told the Herald: “The problems are not just teething problems. They just don’t have enough staff to run the operating theatres.”

The Australian Medical Association NSW complained of a lack of junior and senior medical staff “across the board”.

President of the Australian Salaried Medical Officers Federation, Tony Sara, said NSW Health needed to force Healthscope to comply with its contract obligations, and ensure safe care for patients and junior doctors and nurses before staff were overwhelmed or someone died as a result.

“It is just being done on the cheap. The dollar is the primary motivator and it is inevitable that patient care will be compromised,” Dr Sara said.

“The hospital management are thinking about the money – they are not thinking about the patient care.”

He described Healthscope management as “arrogant, ignorant and probably incompetent in terms of its capacity to run a public hospital”.

Profits before mothers and babies

Staff, led by doctors and anaesthetists, began to expose life-threatening flaws in NBH management.

The ABC reported that an email from a senior anaesthetist detailed a case where a mother undergoing an emergency caesarean survived “against the odds”.

“Let me be clear these are NOT ‘teething problems,’ he wrote in the email to the head of his department, adding that the emergency caesarean was a nightmare for clinicians.

“The hospital currently fails completely in its primary objective of patient safety.”

“There was inadequate supply of equipment, insufficiently trained staff, poor protocols for simple requests such as a blood transfusion, and a complete lack of a cohesive plan for (a) worst-case scenario.”

The government always claimed that NBH would treat public patients the same as at any public hospital.

The first indication that this was false came 12 days after opening, with media reports of a patient refused an angiogram because NBH would not accept his private insurance with NIB. John Whitehead was also told that if he entered the hospital as a public patient it would cost him $4,945.

Mr Whitehead was forced to book into Royal North Shore Hospital, a move that delayed his treatment. After a social media outcry and intervention by Mr Whitehead’s local MP, NBH relented and promised his angiogram would go ahead.

Richard West, a retired Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Professor of Surgery called on the NSW government to ensure public and private patients receive the same treatment at NBH.

Meanwhile, a mothers’ group, Friends of Northern Beaches Maternity Services, said NBH was putting profits before mothers and babies because of its refusal to expand midwife-led birth services.

“We’re worried NBH is not going to deliver good public maternity services because they want women to go with private obstetricians, which is more profitable,” a spokesperson said.