Sue Martin says preparedness the key to ensuring patient outcomes

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Sue Martin, the managing director of Johnson & Johnson MedTech and a former nurse, says the last two years have been tough for everyone in our hospitals and healthcare services and that decision-makers need to focus on future preparedness.

Tough for nurses, doctors and paramedics working incredibly long hours, in often hot, heavy, and restrictive personal protective equipment. Tough for wardies, medical receptionists and all our unsung heroes behind the scenes who have turned up to work every day with so much uncertainty around them.

It has also been tough for patients that rely on regular medical care to treat ongoing, debilitating illnesses. And tough for patients who were due to have life-altering surgeries, only to have faced long delays.

'Elective’ surgery does not mean optional surgery.

These surgeries are essential in helping patients deal with serious and painful conditions like deteriorating hip and knee joints.

These surgeries also include procedures that detect and remove cancers and cataracts, reconstruct breasts after devastating cancer diagnoses, help women conceive, and people smile again. These procedures get people moving, back to work, and living a full and vibrant life again.

As a former nurse, I understand the importance of a well-functioning healthcare system and the difference it can make both for employees, and more importantly for patients.

The events of COVID-19 have brought our own health and the healthcare system into the spotlight, and concern from the community is significant.

This was highlighted in our recently commissioned research - more than 80 per cent of NSW residents surveyed placed the quality of the healthcare system above issues such as climate change and unemployment.

It also revealed a majority did not support the decision to suspend elective surgeries during the Omicron outbreak, with 90 per cent of residents surveyed stating they would be concerned for themselves and their loved ones if elective surgery were to be delayed by more than three months.

It is an undeniable fact the government was backed into a corner over the past couple of years with an already stretched healthcare system facing a 100-year pandemic. They made the tough but necessary decisions to pause elective surgery and refocus efforts on the pandemic response.

However, more than two years into the pandemic, suspending elective surgery has become the recurring response to COVID outbreaks, and the more regular and sustained they become, the greater the impact on patient outcomes.

The most recent Bureau of Health Information quarterly data shows that essential elective surgery has blown out to beyond 94,000 patients in New South Wales, and over 10,000 patients waited longer than clinically recommended.

Even with the healthcare system working in overdrive to clear the backlog, it will be a long time to catch up. That means thousands of additional people suffering with health issues that are entirely preventable and treatable.

While the decision to pause elective surgery had unintended consequences; we can’t just admire the problem. It requires action. This is not about laying blame, it is our responsibility as a sector to support good decision making and policy practices that put patients first.

Put bluntly, it is our role to help develop solutions.

That is why we have joined discussions with the Australian Medical Association, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, Catholic Health Australia and the McKell Institute, to chart a way forward in partnership with the government for practical and implementable changes to better manage elective surgery in times of crisis.

While funding is certainly part of the solution, especially if you start from the premise that we need expanded capacity in the system, it is not all we need to address the issue. Clinicians have told us they want governments, state and federal, to harness the sector’s collective expertise and develop a plan specifically to keep surgery going.

Initiatives such as 'surge capacity' to keep surgery going as much as possible, a dedicated fund and workforce plan and establishing COVID designated hospitals to allow surgical services to continue in most hospitals all have the backing of many in the industry and the broader community.

This also means reassessing current traditional care practices and utilising new technologies.

Do patients having a knee replacement really need to stay in hospital for a full five days, when they can be treated safely with great outcomes within three days?

By better harnessing digital solutions that are well established and safe, we can enable patients to be monitored in the home, both for patients who are leaving hospital, and to prevent hospitalisations for those patients managing chronic disease.

These actions will help alleviate pressure on the health care system and mean those who need surgery will be seen in a timely manner.

COVID has shown us how remarkable our healthcare system is but has also showed its flaws. Let’s not waste the opportunity to learn from that and build a more resilient system that can withstand another outbreak or the upcoming busy winter flu season.