The Far South Coast community has rallied behind an embattled surgeon and a brand new, but allegedly broken hospital.
More than 400 people packed into the Bega Valley Commemorative Civic Centre on Thursday night to hear grievances about the current state of the South East Regional Hospital, which only this week celebrated 12 months in operation.
The main issue for the night was the dismissal at short notice of orthopaedic surgeon and department head Chris Phoon, but other issues raised on the night related to the removal of SERH’s rural classification and “chronic short staffing” in the clerical department.
The reasoning behind the non-renewal of Dr Phoon's contract have not been fully outlined by hospital administration, but the strong showing from the community at Thursday night's meeting was hoped to lend support to his call for an extension and further negotiations.
Fellow orthopaedic surgeon Matthew Nott was behind the meeting and he repeated his claim this was the worst decision he has seen in any health district in 20 years.
“Dr Phoon is an excellent colleague and a fine asset to this community,” Dr Nott said in his introduction.
He referred to “an exemplary” performance appraisal conducted in October 2016, and then a “complete surprise” only months later that Dr Phoon’s contract would not be renewed.
Dr Phoon himself received a standing ovation from the partisan crowd when he took the stage.
He said it was a big decision to uproot a family to move to a regional area to practice and that job security was a necessary element to attract specialists to country hospitals.
“When you move somewhere hoping to work for the next 30 years you need to know that’s not going to suddenly be pulled out from under your feet,” he said.
He also made claims one-third of the senior medical staff that worked at the SERH 12 months ago were no longer there and that the stripping of the hospital’s rural classification ”when you’re an area of need and already can’t attract doctors...makes no sense”.
The response from the crowd was a strong showing of support for Dr Phoon in particular, but also strong support for the flagged inquiry into the decisions being made by LHD management.
However, there were calls for the terms of reference for any external review to be broader than just the focus on orthopaedic services as currently outlined.
A statement by Member for Bega Andrew Constance, read out at Thursday night’s meeting, spoke of “teething problems” at SERH and his “strong view” the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons lead the independent review into not just the decision not to renew Dr Phoon’s contract but also the entire orthopaedic services.
I honestly don’t know why they picked this fightDr Chris Phoon
Mr Constance has also previously referred to “cultural issues” within the hospital needing to be addressed.
Drs Nott and Phoon took that phrase to strengthen their stance against overall management of SERH.
“This needs to be more broadly about attracting and retaining staff...in a whole range of services,” Dr Phoon said.
“If we don’t see a good outcome from this particular episode, for any young doctor...you’re very unlikely to come.”
Dr Phoon spoke to Fairfax Media after the meeting and thanked the community for its support.
“I honestly don’t know why they picked this fight,” he said of LHD management.
“I liked Matthew’s description of a hospital admin seeing me walking towards them in the hall and thinking ‘oh no’...and I guess it is a bit like that sometimes,” he added with a laugh.
“But this has always been a rural area and an area of need and there’s been on explanation whatsoever [about why the rural status was scrapped].
“Why push this so far without being able to explain it?”
Dr Phoon also said there was a need to make sure the external review “does not get hijacked by people it is supposed to be looking into and therefore avoid scrutiny”.
“Everyone needs to be accountable,” he said.
A statement received from the Southern NSW LHD ahead of last night’s meeting outlined the board’s support “without exception, the chief executive’s endeavours to fully implement services at South East Regional Hospital in a manner that ensures the quality and safety of care for our patients”.
The Local Health District executive and South East Regional Hospital management
are committed to providing individual care that is safe, effective and appropriate and
that provides the patient with a positive experience.
The LHD also said discussion with Dr Phoon ahead of Thursday night’s public meeting “were comprehensive and cordial, and they are ongoing”.
“As the negotiations have not yet been concluded, the Local Health District will be making no further comment at this time.”
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