Indigenous health clinics are grappling with critical medical staff shortages after border closures and new quarantine measures cut off their supply of fly-in, fly-out GPs and nurses.
Doctors are warning there could be dire consequences in some Indigenous communities where residents already have limited access to care, and high rates of chronic disease.
“It’ll have a massive impact, it’s one thing to do telehealth, but you can’t do CPR or resuscitation over the phone,” said Dr Mark Wenitong from the Cape York Health Council (CYHC).
Dr Mark Wenitong is worried about the impact of lost NZ health workers in remote clinics. (Supplied)
Most Australian states and territories have shut their borders, while special lock-down restrictions have been put in place in some Indigenous communities to slow the spread of coronavirus.
But it’s New Zealand’s border closure that is putting the biggest strain on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health sector, especially remote clinics.
“We had a reliance on New Zealand locums, maybe 20 to 30 per cent,” Dr Wenitong said, about the Aboriginal health clinics CYHC run across far-north Queensland.
He said these temporary workers would fill in vital gaps in the rural health workforce, performing both general and specialist care.
Aboriginal health clinics around the country are feeling the impact, said Jason Agostino, a GP, and medical adviser for the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation.
“Many remote clinics run off a constant rotation of these fly-in, fly-out staff … a lot of our fly-in, fly-out staff come from New Zealand,” he said.
“These are our GPs and our nurses in these services, these are the essential frontline staff and many remote clinics.
“By taking out the New Zealand staff, by making staff in different states less accessible, we’re having real challenges in keeping these clinics running.”
Doctors cautious about replacement staff
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have been highlighted as a vulnerable group during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to the high rates of existing chronic illnesses.
These communities were hit hard during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, and health workers are trying to prevent a similar outbreak with COVID-19.
In many remote communities families live in overcrowded homes and there is limited capacity to self-isolate, meaning the virus could spread rapidly.
The Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service has quickly organised replacement staff for its clinics across remote north-west Western Australia, but a coronavirus outbreak could still spell disaster.
“Certainly when New Zealand made the announcement that they were closing their borders, that impacted us immediately,” medical director Lorraine Anderson said.
“We had some staff that actually just needed to leave and some staff who were due to come in that couldn’t come in.
“Despite that setback, we’re in a pretty good position staffing wise now and saying that … I don’t know what that’s going to look like if we have an outbreak in the Kimberley.”
She said new staff were being quarantined before interacting with patients.
“We’re being very, very careful about the people who are going out to work in the communities,” Dr Anderson said.
“It’s not the time for a tourist season in the Kimberley, and we just need to really protect our elderly people in our remote communities.”
Health workers are considered essential services and can be exempt for interstate two-week quarantine rules but Dr Wenitong said that was not always best practice.
“We’re being very conservative … because this is a balancing act and about protecting our vulnerable people in remote areas,” he said.
He said limiting contact with the rest of the country could be the best way to keep vulnerable residents in remote communities safe from an outbreak.
Doctors hope to keep the outbreak out of communities like Looma in the Kimberley. (ABC Kimberley: Emily Jane Smith)
‘Preparing for death and suffering’ AMA warns
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) is calling on federal and state governments to provide urgent funding to Indigenous health organisations.
AMA members are warning that contracted medical services, and their staff, are being withdrawn from Aboriginal communities.
“Doctors are telling the AMA that people are preparing for death and suffering because they do not have the resources to evacuate very ill people,” said AMA president Tony Bartone.
“The AMA is calling for the National Cabinet to urgently fund and resource Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander health services to ensure they can respond to COVID-19.”
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