If we allow Covid to overwhelm Australia’s healthcare system, medical care will suffer | Stefan Parnis

I got nothing three months ago.

More than two years of dealing with the Covid pandemic on multiple fronts had taken its toll and I was suffering from burnout. I had to detach myself from my clinical work to take the necessary steps to rest, reflect and recover.

It was a difficult decision at the time, but looking back I’m convinced it was the right thing to do.

What I was not prepared for was the number of colleagues across Australia who confided in me that they too felt overwhelmed and traumatized by the pressures and demands they faced every day.

It is no secret and no surprise that the Australian healthcare system has been battered during the course of the pandemic and hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers have faced exceptional levels of fatigue, rapidly increasing workloads and insufficient resources with no idea when this will happen ordeal will end. The vicious combination of increasing patient numbers, bed constraints and an understaffed workforce has led to increasing delays in care.

Delays in medical care will inevitably result in preventable deaths, and an exhausted workforce will make more mistakes.

Australia is currently being gripped by another wave of Covid-19, this time due to variants many times more contagious than their predecessors. We have more than 5,000 Australians hospitalized for Covid and more than 9,000 have died this year alone – multiples more than in 2020 and 2021.

Our system’s lack of surge capacity has been exposed, and while it has taken longer than anticipated, our healthcare system is now at a point where it is struggling to provide the care we expect and deserve. Calling 000 does not guarantee that an urgent ambulance will arrive when needed, and the arrival of critically ill people in hospital by private car or taxi is happening more than ever. Waiting times to see a GP or to have urgent surgery are getting worse.

We have N95 masks that reduce virus transmission – but we don’t use them when we should. We see many people out and about with viral symptoms who should stay home from work and school. We have vaccines that still provide significant protection against severe and deadly Covid – but uptake rates of the all-important booster shot are stagnant. We have effective antiviral treatments when used early in the disease stage in high-risk groups – but they only reach a subset of those who would benefit. Our attention to air quality measures – even in warmer parts of the country – has waned.

After two years of severe restrictions, fear, uncertainty and trauma, many Australians are desperate to believe the pandemic is over. Having been away from hospitals since May, I can see how tempting it is to take an out of sight, out of mind approach to the Covid nightmare.

But the desire to end the pandemic does not make it so, and while we see the intersection of community fatigue and political reluctance to act on some aspects of medical advice, we now face the consequences of a Covid wave, which is the most severe in Australia to this day.

When I resume my clinical work, I would like to think about returning with changes in my approach to medical care delivery.

My resolve to see changes in the way we provide healthcare has only been strengthened.

New models of care, better use of health information and technology, better community support and collaboration between levels of government are just the tip of an iceberg of actions that would make a difference.

But right now, supporting and protecting a weary, exhausted healthcare workforce – to maintain their ability to provide the best possible care – is high on my list of priorities.

As a single doctor, I may not be able to change the healthcare system. But from now on, I intend to take better care of myself so I can provide better care to my patients and my colleagues.

dr Stephen Parnis is an emergency doctor in Melbourne and a former Vice President of the Australian Medical Association

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