Increasing Hospital Capacity

Australia has an opportunity to learn from what is happening in Italy as that is likely to be us in one month. One hopes that the Government and health departments understand the impact of the disease on hospitals

Once the demand soars for hospital services, a number of things will need consideration.

  • can we keep corona and non-corona cases separate ?
  • how can we optimize the use of whatever resources we have here to manage the care of patients.

In Australia we have a private and public system and this means that taken as a whole, our system has much more excess capacity than a purely public system such as France or Italy. Negotiating fair terms with the owners of those facilities is best done before the crisis hits. The Covid-19 cases in Italy requiring hospitalization have generally needed high level care; many intensive care and have had long hospital stays

To properly understand hospitals, it is important to understand equipment and staffing. A typical surgical or medical ward looks like this

although this ward is empty, there is capability for some simple monitoring (such as pulse and oxygenation, maybe blood pressure) some oxygen supplementation and an infusion or two. A nurse may look after 4 patients

Contrast this with ICU

taken from

In this example there are syringe driver pumps, infusion lines, a ventilator, a dialysis machine and many monitors. A general ward cannot do the same function. ICU will have one to one nursing.

This report

shows that NSW ICU occupancy is already at 90% in the winter months. Although cancelling all elective surgery would free up significant numbers of beds in ICU it would likely only increase availability by 20%. Around 40% of ICU admissions come post surgery but much of that surgery would be emergency

It may be possible to convert private hospital recovery

or operating theatres

Image result for operating theatre

into makeshift ICU or high dependency beds (as is being done in Italy) but this will require negotiation with private hospital operators and importantly will require large numbers of staff to be recruited / redeployed / upskilled

The time to plan for this is now.

Getting retired doctors back to work

One of the ideas to address a likely forthcoming workforce crisis is that of getting retired doctors back to work. The Victorian manifestation of this idea is not novel. Boris Johnson floated the same idea in the UK

It is not a simple task. Maintaining medical registration has become more complex and costly in the last 2 decades.

Once upon a time, doctors could maintain a sort of inactive registration through which they could retain prescribing and referral rights. This was removed in 2003

The State and Commonwealth Governments now have no easy way to contact let alone recruit these practitioners. The roadblocks to them working again include

  • No current registration and no easy and quick method to re-verify and re-credential original training
  • Current standards do not allow doctors out of practice for more than 12 months to practice without an approved plan
  • Medical practitioners need by law to participate in Continuous Professional Development. These programs are administered by the relevant colleges. It is near certain that retired doctors would have allowed these memberships to lapse as membership is very expensive
  • Doctors who have retired and triggered the Run Off Cover indemnity scheme find it very costly and difficult to regain indemnity insurance

In short, although it is possible to re-recruit retired doctors to the workforce, it is something that requires careful thought and planning and involvement of many departments and organisations.

If it is a serious suggestion, the time to enact it is now.

How Governments should Respond

Covid-19 will pose severe challenges to society in 2020. These will include

  • Health services – these could easily get overwhelmed
  • Workforce shortages – we will feel the lack of employees in some industries very acutely eg health, docks, truck drivers, people maintaining utilities etc
  • Law and Order
  • Economy – some sectors will be devastated – we will need a plan to get them back
  • Supply chain – we may need to re-establish certain manufacturing here

It appears that we have more time to prepare than Italy or South Korea but it is important to use the time carefully. We should also learn from history.

An analysis of the response (suboptimal) to the Spanish Flu is here

An analysis of the response to the Mississippi flood of 1927 is here

and was generally but not universally considered to be good.

At this stage of the crisis, consideration should be given to naming an individual to be in charge of the planning and response and to start to create the framework for the crisis response.

Economic intervention from Government will be needed. A rush to simplistic measures such as interest rates cuts and cash vouchers should be avoided