Calls for more paediatricians as shortage leaves 3,300 Tasmanian children on wait list

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Erica Sim can’t sleep at night knowing her two children need to see a paediatrician, but she simply can’t access one.

The children also need to see a psychologist to help them deal with trauma after their father took his own life earlier this year but, again, Ms Sim has been unable to even secure an appointment.

“It’s a big burden and a lot of stress and worry and anxiety daily,” she said.

“I don’t know how I am going to help my children any further than I am.”

Ms Sim’s six-year-old son Joshua Cooper has been on the outpatient waitlist to see a paediatrician at the Royal Hobart Hospital for a year.

A young boy sits at a table smiling with his sister and mum behind

Erica Sim can’t get help for son Joshua until she gets an official diagnosis.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

She tried to get a referral to a private paediatrician in Tasmania but was told none were taking on new patients.

“It’s just very frustrating.”

Erica was concerned her son was experiencing developmental delays and has since been told by his school that they suspect he may have an intellectual disability. 

“They actually tested his IQ score and did some behavioural studies on him while he was in class and he scored really low,” she said.

But without an official diagnosis from a paediatrician, Ms Sim can not get the support her son needs.

“He’s already being left behind at school. I just wonder what effects it’s going to have on him for the rest of his life,” she said.

A mum at a table watches over her two children painting

Erica Sim says she has decided to speak out because “the health system is failing our kids”.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

Erica Sim’s daughter Holly Cooper has ADHD and had been seeing private paediatrician Charlotte Whitelaw.

But with Dr Whitelaw retiring, Holly has been put on the public outpatient wait list to see a paediatrician.

The 10-year-old’s medication for ADHD will run out soon and Ms Sim has little hope she will be seen in time to have her prescription renewed.

“That will have ramifications on her behaviour at school and at home, she will be missing out on school work if she can’t concentrate … she needs medication to help her sleep,” she said.

Erica Sim has also been advised that her children should see a psychologist after their father’s recent death.

But everywhere she had called to make an appointment have said their books were closed.

“I’ve got two kids with trauma backgrounds now and they can’t even get in to see a psychologist or a paediatrician. It’s very stressful,” she said.

She has decided to speak out to highlight the lack of health services available in Tasmania.

“It’s a joke at the moment, to be honest,” she said.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of other parents and they’re all having similar issues as well and just how the health system is failing our kids at the moment.”

Wait list up to three years

A woman with silver hair and glasses sits on a desk in a room full of children's drawings

Retiring paediatrician Dr Charlotte Whitelaw says waiting lists have been steadily growing.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

As of July 31, 2023, there were 3,307 people on the outpatient waiting list to see a paediatric specialist. 

The median waiting days for Category 1 was 29 days and 104 days for Category 2.

Dr Whitelaw has described the outpatient wait list at the Royal Hobart Hospital as “inadequate and unfair.”

After 30 years working in paediatrics, she finished consulting at the Royal mid-last year where, she said, wait lists had steadily lengthened in the last few years.

“My understanding is that at present there are two wait lists being created; one for ‘medical’ problems and one for ‘developmental behavioural’ problems,” she said.

Based on staffing levels, she said children on the first list could expect to wait over six months to see a specialist while children on the second list could wait between two and three years.

A young boy colours in a drawing

There are more than 3,000 people on the outpatient list waiting to see a paediatric specialist.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“It infers that children with concerns in the domain of their development or behaviour are less deserving of care than children with physical complaints. I just don’t believe this is the case,” she said.

“Appropriate investigation, diagnosis and treatment can alter the life trajectory of a child with ADHD or with a developmental delay in a positive way.”

“If that child treads water for two years before they are even seen, that might be two lost years of progress for that child.”

She said there was a national shortage of paediatricians, and her retirement meant an additional 300 children in Hobart were without a specialist and would struggle to find an alternative.

“Parents are sometimes understandably highly distressed,” she said.

“We often feel certain that a child or young person needs help now based on the phone call, but we often have no suggestions as to where they can go. It’s upsetting for everyone.”

She said private medical businesses could only ever be a supplement to health care services provided by the government.

Dr Whitelaw said many paediatricians wanted to work between both the private and public sectors.

A young woman sits at a table with her two primary school children who are painting

Erica Sim with her children Holly and Joshua Cooper in their Sorell home.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

“This allows them to interact with colleagues, have peer support and professional development, stay in touch with local service availability and access appropriate local care for patients when hospital investigation or treatment is required,” she said.

“Enticing new private paediatricians to the state may be more likely to succeed if a role at the public hospital was also on offer.”

A woman with sliver hair and glasses sits at a desk talking on a smartphone

Dr Whitelaw says there is a shortage of paediatricians in Australia.(ABC News: Luke Bowden)

But she has frustrations with the way the outpatient system is working, particularly around the difficulty in scheduling a timely follow-up appointment with young patients.

“This situation was not in the best interests of patient care and always seemed to me to be an example of the kind of hospital system problem that shouldn’t have been beyond solving, and yet was never solved.”

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