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If we let Covid overwhelm the Australian healthcare system, medical care will suffer | Stephane Parnis

Three months ago, I was running on empty.

Dealing with the Covid pandemic on multiple fronts for over two years had taken its toll, and I was suffering from burnout. I had to take time away from my clinical work to take the necessary steps to rest, reflect and recuperate.

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

What I was unprepared for was the number of colleagues across Australia who confided that they also felt overwhelmed and traumatized by the pressures and demands they faced day in and day out.

It’s no secret or surprise that Australia’s healthcare system has taken a beating during the pandemic, and hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers have faced extraordinary levels of fatigue, rapidly increasing workloads with inadequate resources and no way of knowing when this ordeal will end. The diabolical combination of growing patient numbers, limited beds, and an understaffed workforce has led to more and more delays in care.

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

Australia is currently in the throes of a new wave of Covid-19, this time from variants far more contagious than their predecessors. We have over 5,000 Australians in hospital due to Covid, and over 9,000 have died this year alone – far more than in 2020 and 2021.

Our system’s lack of surge capacity has been revealed, and although it has taken longer than expected, our healthcare system is now at the point where it is struggling to deliver the care we expect and deserve. Calls to 000 do not guarantee that an urgent ambulance will arrive if needed, and the arrival of seriously ill people in hospital by private car or taxi is happening more than ever. Waiting times to see a GP or undergo urgent surgery are getting worse.

We have N95 masks which reduce transmission of the virus, but we don’t use them when we should. We see many people coming out with viral symptoms, who should stay home from work and school. We have vaccines that still confer significant protection against severe and deadly Covid – but uptake rates of the important booster have stagnated. We have effective antiviral treatments if used in high-risk groups early in their illness, but they only reach a fraction of those who would benefit. Our attention to air quality measurements – even in the hottest parts of the country – has diminished.

After two years of severe restrictions, fear, uncertainty and trauma, many Australians desperately want to believe the pandemic is over. Away from hospitals since May, I see how seductive it is to take an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to the Covid nightmare.

But wishing for an end to the pandemic doesn’t make it that way, and as we watch the intersection of community fatigue and political reluctance to act on certain aspects of medical advice, we now face the consequences of a wave of Covid which is the worst in Australia to date.

As I return to my clinical work, I would like to think that I return with changes in my approach to providing medical care.

My determination to see change in the way we deliver health care has only been strengthened.

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

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

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

Dr Stephen Parnis is an emergency physician in Melbourne and former Vice President of the Australian Medical Association.

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