Children in rural and regional Victoria are losing access to the state's premier children's hospital because of a lack of resources, a leading pediatrician says.
Shepparton-based Peter Eastaugh, president of the Australian Pediatric Society, has written a letter to the Royal Children's Hospital chief executive, claiming the hospital is "manifestly inadequate" in catering to the needs of rural children. In particular, he says:
¦Specialists who are needed to interpret EEG (electro encephalogram) brain scans for conditions such as epilepsy are only dealing with cases at the hospital, and "seem to have become unavailable to report" EEGs from the country.
¦There is an 18-month waiting time for MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans at the hospital, and if the scan is done at a regional hospital to save time the RCH does not provide an expert neuro-radiologist to interpret it.
¦There have been multiple cases where beds could not be found for children needing a transfer from country hospitals.
"Why is it so difficult for us to get children admitted to the RCH?" Dr Eastaugh said. "They are a wonderful institution that provides excellent care, but I feel it has become disconnected from the wider community.
"Once you get in the door it is a premiere institution, but our problem is getting in the door."
Dr Eastaugh said he believed the hospital was suffering from a budget shortfall.
He also said neurologists who specialised in interpreting children's EEGs were needed to investigate conditions such as epilepsy, as well as for MRI brain scans looking for brain tumours and other abnormalities.
"Either we do it locally and get a report by non-specialist radiologists, or we wait 18 months for it to be done at the RCH," he said, while conceding that waiting time did not apply to urgent cancer cases.
Jill McGinness, from Panmure near Warrnambool, said her son had been turned away by the hospital when he needed urgent surgery.
Last month one-year-old Liam was rushed to Warrnambool Hospital in agony with a strangulated hernia.
"The surgeon there said he needed to be operated on within 48 hours, it was quite crucial," Mrs McGinness said.
The surgeon arranged an operation at the RCH and the family travelled to Melbourne, staying the night before the booking.
But when they arrived at the hospital, a registrar told them the operation could not take place, and they would have to go on a three-week waiting list.
"He sent us on our way," Mrs McGinness said. "I couldn't believe it." The family could not even get compensation for the travel and accommodation, because Liam had not been admitted to the hospital.
Two weeks later Liam was again rushed to Warrnambool Hospital, screaming in pain. Again, the family was told he needed urgent surgery. Luckily, this time a surgeon was visiting the next day who could do the operation.
"No one has explained why it happened," Mrs McGinness said. "I just felt like they thought we were idiots. I don't think they realised how far we actually travelled."
Opposition health spokeswoman Helen Shardey applauded Dr Eastaugh for speaking out.
"(The McGinness) case is symptomatic of the many other services that are not funded well enough to offer an appropriate and timely level of care to Victorian children, particularly those from country areas," Ms Shardey said.
An RCH spokeswoman said that when Liam and his family arrived for surgery, a clinical assessment concluded it was no longer urgent and a care plan was put into place.
She said the hospital treated patients based on clinical need, not location, and that it did not expect to report a budget shortfall this year.
"We've had time to look at the issues Dr Eastaugh has raised and we are responding to him," the spokeswoman said, adding that paediatric services were provided at a range of hospitals across Victoria, but urgent cases would always be sent to Melbourne's children's hospital.
"If a child needs urgent care and our doctors are of that opinion, then the child gets that care regardless of where they are from," the spokeswoman said.
A Government spokesman said extra patients would be able to be treated after the new Royal Children's Hospital was completed in 2011.
"The Brumby Government has increased the operational funding to the Royal Children's Hospital by 112 per cent since 1999," the spokesman said.
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