Canberra Liberals say they will halve hospital wait times, though expert says money is not the problem

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Expanded emergency department at Canberra Hospital

The Canberra Liberals say they will oversee a massive expansion of ACT hospitals’ emergency departments and their capacity to perform surgeries, if they win next month’s election.

Key points:

  • The Canberra Liberals say they will halve hospital emergency and surgery wait times by hiring more staff and building 27 new operating theatres
  • Labor says the Opposition’s plan is “impossible” and includes no funding for staff beyond what Labor has already committed
  • A Grattan Institute researcher says ACT hospitals’ problems relate to inefficiency rather than a lack of funds

The party committed today to cutting in half Canberrans’ wait times for elective surgery and emergency treatment.

Liberal leader Alistair Coe promised to increase the number of hospital operating theatres from 13 to 30.

He said that would allow 70,000 elective surgeries over four years — about 10,000 more than the Labor Government had planned for.

The commitment would cost an extra $120 million and the party pledged to hire 400 more health staff, half of them nurses.

“The Canberra Liberals are going to declare war on elective surgery waiting times,” he told ABC Radio Canberra.

The average wait times for ACT public hospital services, whether emergency or surgery, are the longest in Australia.

Mr Coe said this affected “the poorest in our community”.

“Because it is the poorest in our community, generally, who are on the public waiting list,” he said.

Asked how he would recruit the medical staff needed to fulfill his promise, Mr Coe said the Liberals would make Canberra “a place of choice for doctors and nurses and, indeed, everyone”.

“We will cut the cost of living in the ACT and that will make the ACT more attractive,” he said.

He said his party would also eliminate the “bullying culture” in the Canberra Hospital “that has existed for so many years under ACT Labor”.

Alistair Coe in a suit outside the ACT Legislative Assembly.

Inefficiency the problem, not money: expert

The Grattan Institute’s health program director, Stephen Duckett, said ACT patients waited significantly longer than other Australians and “attacking waiting lists is absolutely the right thing to do”.

However, he questioned whether the Liberals’ approach would work, as Canberra hospitals seemed to lack efficiency rather than resources.

“Certainly, the Liberals are right in addressing this problem; I don’t think they’ve got the right solution, though.”

External Link: ACT public hospitals’ worsening surgery wait lists.

Dr Duckett said ACT patients stayed in hospital eight per cent longer than the national average.

“The ACT hospitals are essentially inefficient,” he said.

“And what the Government and the Opposition should be saying is: ‘What do we need to do to make the length of stay in the ACT the same as it is in, say, Victoria?’

“This might be that they need to provide more services in the community, for example, so people can be discharged sooner.”

Dr Duckett suggested that, whichever party took office, the government should commit to a “waiting list guarantee” — a maximum wait for patients — for priority operations.

It could do this by not performing “low-value surgeries” and focus on improving hospital efficiency.

Labor says ‘magical’ hospital plan is infeasible

Rachel looks serious while addressing the media in a grey pantsuit.

Labor’s health spokeswoman, Rachel Stephen-Smith, dismissed the Liberals’ plan as impossible to deliver.

“This is the kind of promise you make when you know you don’t have to deliver,” Ms Stephen-Smith said.

“Certainly not within the resources that the Canberra Liberals said they would use.

“They’ve committed to the exact same increase in health staff as we have and, somehow, magically, they’re going to do an additional 10,000 elective surgeries.”

An artist's impression of a few quite large buildings in amongst a tree-lined suburb.

Ms Stephen-Smith said the Government was already “pushing the system” to perform 16,000 elective surgeries this year to catch up after the COVID-19 shut-down.

“People will be working overtime, we’ll be using the entire capacity of our public and private hospital system,” she said.

“Our plan is achievable and … is more than a 10 per cent increase in elective surgeries.

“And we will continue to expand as the Canberra Hospital expansion goes online.”

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