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Dr Andrew McAllister petitions Queensland policymakers over ophthalmology access in Darling Downs

Toowoomba’s Dr Andrew McAllister is behind a new petition calling for funding so that public ophthalmology patients in his local area can avoid the burden of travelling to Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital for treatment.

The petition was lodged on 8 August 2023 and calls on the Queensland Parliament to address the lack of medical and surgical treatment options for patients in the Darling Downs Health Service area for acute ophthalmology presentations via the private rooms of ophthalmologists in Toowoomba.

McAllister, of Toowoomba Retina & Eye Specialists, said currently there was no public hospital access for patients in Toowoomba and the Darling Downs, with patients transferred via ambulance or private transport to the closest tertiary hospital with ophthalmology registrars, Princess Alexandra Hospital.

This is despite there being six ophthalmologists in Toowoomba that have private practices. They have offered to see public patients, but McAllister said the hospital has repeatedly said that there is no funding to provide an ophthalmology service.

“We understand the cost pressures that the health service is under, which is why I would like to petition the state parliament for funding so patients who cannot afford treatment do not have to travel to Brisbane,” he told Insight.

“There is a travel and accommodation subsidy available for patients and their carers, who may need to spend days to weeks in Brisbane for emergency care and follow up. But why not put this funding towards patients staying within their local health district? Currently patients who cannot afford treatment are traveling out of the Darling Downs district for all ophthalmology treatment. What I am proposing is that funding be provided for patients that need acute medical care, which would include a consultation and surgery if needed.

“This, in turn, will take pressure off the local health service, reduce emergency presentations to the Princess Alexandra Hospital, the ambulance service, and reduce the time for patients and their carers to travel and stay away from their home and support networks. If funding can be provided for acute treatment, I would like to see chronic conditions that require long term treatment and management to be managed within our health district as well.”

McAllister said the common referrals that would normally require an urgent review would be medical and surgical causes of acute vision loss, trauma, and other conditions that are at risk of causing loss of vision, loss of an eye or death.

Requiring time-sensitive assessment, McAllister said this leads to treatment, and if a patient is unable to afford medical and surgical management via the private rooms they, need to be referred to the tertiary hospital.

“This is where funding is crucial so patients are able to have treatment locally, and we can offer the best possible care for our patients,” he said.

“The out-of-pocket costs for surgical and hospital admission can be several thousands of dollars if you are not privately insured, which is not rebatable through Medicare, and it is a difficult conversation to have with patients about this cost when they are their most vulnerable. If there is a funding stream available for acute ophthalmology services, patients then have the freedom of choice on where and when they have treatment locally.”

Potential solutions

McAllister said currently there are not the resources or funding available to establish an ophthalmology department at the local hospital. However, the private practices and day surgeries do have the resources and trained staff to be able to see patients with ophthalmology emergencies.

“What I would like to see is funding to be available from the local hospital to be able to have an urgent assessment and treatment in Toowoomba. Other specialties have this arrangement already in place, but this is because they have a presence at the public hospital already and so are funded,” he said.

“If a patient presents to the public hospital emergency department with loss of vision or a sight threatening condition, it would be great if the patient can be referred to and assessed by a local ophthalmologist rather than transport the patient to Brisbane. There is the ability for ophthalmologists to see patients with immediate access to care within the district, why not utilise it?”

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