By Fiona Blackwood
People with intellectual disabilities in Tasmania are dying from treatable conditions because some doctors make assumptions about their quality of life, an inquiry has heard.
Clinical Associate Professor Robyn Wallace is a Tasmanian physician specialising in healthcare for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
She was giving evidence at a Legislative Council Committee, which has resumed hearings into acute health services in Tasmania.
“I’ve got a pile that high of patients who have died this year in our hospitals, preventable deaths I believe,” she told the committee.
She said the life expectancy of people with an intellectual disability is 30 years lower than the general population and the gap is increasing.
“Fantastic doctors would wrongly assume that a person with an intellectual disability has no quality of life,” she said.
“Therefore at 30 years old when they get a urinary tract infection it’s not worth treating and that develops into sepsis and they die.
“Incorrectly, doctors and health professionals are not understanding that these people are loved, they’re cherished, they contribute to the world.
“You don’t even have to justify them being alive, they’re alive so that’s enough.”
She is calling for better training for doctors and dedicated outpatient services to address the physical health of people with intellectual disabilities once they become adults.
“At the moment we’re one of the few states where we don’t have a register of deaths of people with disabilities, intellectual disabilities,” she said.
“Clinical review committees just often, the deaths and adverse events just pass through thinking that’s just what happens to people with disability, but it’s not.”
She said the Ombudsman’s office could report on the deaths of people with intellectual disabilities.
“We need the Government to stand up in a loud voice and say this is not good enough for our vulnerable Tasmanians.”
Two deaths caused by bed block: union
Up to eight ambulances were ramped outside during a busy period at the Launceston General Hospital this week. (Supplied)
The Tasmanian branch of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation told the inquiry that bed shortages at the Royal Hobart Hospital have contributed to two patient deaths, which were now before the coroner.
State secretary Emily Shepherd said there had been two cases where patient outcomes had been affected by overcrowding, and there had been increasing pressure on staff to discharge patients from the Emergency Department and wards.
One discharged patient had returned within 24 hours and was pronounced dead on arrival back at the Emergency Department.
Another patient was discharged early from a ward area when staff did not think they were ready to go home.
“The patient didn’t want to go home, the patient was discharged and then died within 24 hours upon discharge,” she said.
She said last week the Launceston General Hospital (LGH) experienced a horror 48-hour period.
“At one particular time there was over 60 patients in the Emergency Department at the LGH, there was eight ambulances ramped and the waiting room was full.”
She said staff were forced to consider how they could resuscitate patients in the waiting room.
‘Not failing, it’s failed’
Tom Millen from LGH’s Emergency Department told the inquiry the system was not failing, “it’s failed”.
“There are horror stories almost every day of elderly people being left in the waiting room having to be treated for pain management and invasive treatments, totally inappropriate levels, giving personal confidential medical histories sitting next to a total stranger,” he said.
“It fundamentally should not be how this system works.”
He said bed block could be relieved by employing a medical discharge team at the weekend.
“You can have a person who is essentially cured holding up a bed till Monday, potentially in the afternoon, exacerbating this problem,” he said.
Emergency Department ‘begging for staff’
Dr Bryan Doyle from the Australian College of Emergency Medicine said registrars were turning away from a career in emergency.
“They see how bad things are and think ‘oh gosh I don’t want to work like this, this is awful’; patients spending days in the emergency department, taking care of patients with court orders and no privacy, knowing how to look after a patient effectively and efficiency but you just can’t,” he said.
“Recruitment for our registrar positions, which I was involved with, last year we were turning people away, this year we’re begging people to come .”
Government minister Roger Jaensch said more nurses had been hired and more beds opened.
“We know that there is more work to do, we will continue to recruit more nurses, open more beds and continue things like the redevelopment of the Royal Hobart to give Tasmania the health system that it needs,” he said.