Nothing brings a country town out like concern for its health service.
Five hundred people packed into the Bega Valley Commemorative Civic Centre tonight (March 9) following the snap sacking of orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Chris Phoon.
Dr Phoon’s 3-year contract at the South East Regional Hospital (SERH) in Bega has not been renewed, despite, as the community was told tonight, an excellent appraisal from his managers just three months prior.
Reading from the appraisal report, long-standing orthopaedic surgeon, Dr Matthew Nott pointed to the four and five-star rating Dr Phoon received across a range of indicators from the then Health Service General Manager and the then Director of Medical Services.
“He is ranked as either good or excellent in effective management and treatment of patients, maintenance of clinical skills and expertise, participation in clinical governance, in clinical outcomes, maintenance of patient records, in effective communication with patients, collegiate and cooperative relations with other medical and non-medical staff…the list goes on,” Dr Nott says.
At a loss to explain Dr Phoon’s treatment under different managers given the glowing appraisal, Dr Nott could only suggest that the 38-year-old was being silenced for his advocacy around better hospital systems and patient outcomes.
Dr Phoon told the meeting the explanation he was given was that core values didn’t align.
People leaving the meeting tonight, all found the situation difficult to comprehend and lacking in logic.
“What’s happening? Why is this happening? That’s what we haven’t learned anything about,” one lady told me.
“How did we get to this point? This should have been resolved much earlier,” a local dairy farmer said.
“I was due to have surgery yesterday, I have no confidence in the local health service,” said another lady gripping a walking frame.
The jam-packed room heard from a range of speakers, Dr Emma Cunngingham – Bombala GP and President of the Rural Doctors Association, David Perry – Divisional Manager of Public Health at the Health Services Union, Dianne Laing – local rep for the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association and Mike Kelly – Federal Member for Eden-Monaro.
While the Health Service accepts there have been teething problems at the new facility, all six speakers tonight portrayed dysfunctional systems and management, issues bigger than one doctor or simple teething troubles.
Dr Nott described Dr Phoon’s case as “a flint to a tinderbox.”
Speakers pointed to increasing waiting lists, a turnover of senior staff, doctors pay being cut, the increasing use of fly-in fly-out locums, admin staff in tears about their workload, good staff fleeing, stretched nursing care, and billions of dollars in Federal Government money stripped away.
Confidence in the management of the hospital and local health service took a hiding, the likes of which is uncomfortable to watch and unfathomable.
It is soul destroying for the community that rallied to get the $170 million hospital built in the first place.
I remember being on radio with ABC South East taking live to air calls from people who were breaking down as they described the joy and sense of security the new hospital embodied.
Those same people came out tonight, and again I heard the tremble in their voice, this time mixed with disappointed and fear.
The Member for Bega, Andrew Constance couldn’t be at tonight’s meeting, a statement was read explaining that parliament was sitting.
The community is now holding out hope that a review commissioned by Mr Constance last week might hold the key to what someone tonight described as a “most bizarre set of circumstances.”
The Constance review asks the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation to look into orthopaedic services at SERH and find clarity around Dr Phoon’s contractual issues.
Tonight’s meeting called for the terms of reference to be expanded to include a review of the entire Bega Valley Health Service, providing an opportunity for comment that staff media bans and other contractual negotiations don’t allow for.
This heartbroken community has a sense they don’t have all the information. They committed themselves tonight (March 9) to finding out and “keeping up the fight” despite the fact they thought it was over this time last year when the new hospital opened.