Planning healthcare services for 500,000 people scattered around a state the size of Scotland is no easy task. It has been made extremely difficult by communitarian and parochial rivalries, and the political responses to those which has meant that money for healthcare has been scattered around very thinly.

Healthcare has been more about winning elections rather than common sense and good planning. In the past that didn’t matter too much when hospitals were relatively unsophisticated but over the last 20-30 years, with technological advances and the need for specialisation and sub-specialisation, and the need for viable mass to make any hospital work effectively, the situation has become a nightmare.

In terms of the northwest coast, we have been left the poisonous legacy of having two district general hospitals pretty close together (a 20 minute drive) with one at the Mersey (near Devonport) and one at Burnie.

Because of the realities of local funding and manpower constraints, neither hospital is adequately funded, adequately staffed, or adequately supported with technology and staff. Both have been marginally viable for some time. There have been seven external reports, usually produced at enormous cost, over the last 20 or so years, all of which have come out saying there needs to be just one viable and sustainable general hospital serving the northwest coast population (and the smaller population down Tasmania’s west coast).

In general, Burnie is probably the most suitable place for this but there has been a lot of argument between the communities and no consensus. AMA policy has been that the best way to proceed would be a new Greenfield site somewhere that everybody could agree on (probably Ulverstone).

After two more recent reports in the last four years, and under a lot of pressure from organisations like the AMA and the Royal Colleges, the State Government over the last year developed a quite sensible strategic plan for healthcare development in Tasmania… at last!

Apart from the population in Devonport which perceives itself as losing its district hospital to an amalgamation on the Burnie site, everyone around the state has been extremely enthusiastic about this. It will involve not just a hopefully excellent hospital in the northwest, but also strategic development of comprehensive services integrated around the state.

The Devonport and Mersey Hospital has had enormous problems over the last five years or so in attracting adequate quality staff. Things have recently come to a head and the Intensive Care Unit had to be closed because of dangerous staffing levels. The emergency department is under huge pressure for similar reasons. This is all occurred before the integrated plan could be implemented. Unfortunately, the writing for the Mersey is on the wall and has been there for some time.

There in flies the Prime Minister of Australia with his own plan to “save” the Mersey Hospital. This seems to be a cynical electoral move which makes absolutely no sense for strategic health planning and indeed cuts across all the hard work and community consultation which has occurred. Trying to resuscitate the Mersey Hospital to do the work it’s been trying to do against enormous difficulties, can not possibly thrive. The Prime Minister’s initiative is bound to fail.

If, instead of this destructive move, the Federal Government could be constructive and invest their $45 million dollars a year to properly construct a single excellent acute general hospital for the Northwest then we could all be proud. As it is, the lack of strategic leadership and political manipulation of local sensitivities is shameful.