‘Getting older has its challenges but accessing health care shouldn’t be one of them’

Jul 06, 2021
Sue says she's spent many hours on hold waiting to get access to health care services in Australia. Source: Stock Photo/Getty Images

Getting older has its fair share of challenges, especially when it comes to one’s health. It’s not just about the health issues themselves — existing or not — but how we navigate the health system in order to get a clear and accurate diagnosis followed by treatment and/or management. It’s a topic that I’ve been discussing with my friend Susan recently.

Read more: ‘Money struggles are devastating, but we’ve hit rock bottom and held it together’

Personally, I’ve been having difficulty in this area. I’ve had cancer three times, multiple surgeries and chronic illness e.g., COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), sleep apnoea, peripheral neuropathy, and most recently dizzy spells. The cause of this last one is yet to be determined. A head CT scan was clear, so my GP has referred me to a neurologist at a major Brisbane hospital. What a pain in the freckle this is proving to be!

After about a week, I rang the hospital to find out what progress had been made in allocating me a date and appointment time. I was transferred from reception to the neurology department, then to the ‘central referral hub’. They had no knowledge of the referral from my GP, telling me it was most likely in the ‘inbox’.

After almost an hour on the telephone, my patience was wearing thin. In fact, I was angry. I’ve never had any reason to complain about the level of care or the competency of the surgeons or specialists but, the administration sucks! This is where I feel the public health system fails dismally.

I made a telecall with my GP and told him of my experience, asking if he could call. I suggested that perhaps, as a medical professional (and my referring GP), he might have more clout than I did under the circumstances. He didn’t. Instead he was asked to email his referral for me to the neurologist again.

He was as frustrated as I was. He told me of other experiences he’s had when dealing with other public services on behalf of his patients (two of which could have been catastrophic for his patient without his intervention) and the news was not good.

It doesn’t seem to matter which government service you deal with (be it Centrelink, NDIS [don’t even start me on them] etc.) or local or federal government agency, the problem is based on the administration of these systems. The administrators, CEOs, boards of directors dictate how these organisations operate. They determine how the staff, who first deal with the patient, will operate.

What angers me most, is that whilst I am computer literate and can wait for hours if I have to while being transferred to one department and another, many others can’t. I know of numerous older people who don’t have the skills, as well as younger people who are faced with the constraints of time and the pressures of work or caring for loved ones.

The bureaucrats, sitting in their plush offices, receiving their substantial salaries/pensions — they are not affected, but your average ‘Joe Blow’ is. I have noticed the impact considerably since coronavirus with people affected financially, physically, emotionally and mentally.

A friend of mine, Libby, has cancer. She lives rurally, about four hours’ drive from Brisbane’s major hospitals. Like me, she has endured similar frustrations. It started with getting the correct diagnosis for her illness, but now getting the treatment she so desperately needs is affected too. It’s just not good enough!

Susan lives in a small village in northern France and the impact of coronavirus has been much more significant. She says:

I consider myself to be lucky. I am in much better health than Sue. Throughout my life though, I have had a few surgical operations in hospitals and clinics in the United Kingdom and in France. All have involved waiting time but, as far as I remember, I’ve not had to wait on the phone or for appointments.

I am in better health now I’m older than I have been in my younger years and I put this down to the fact I started looking into how correct eating can help my body’s defence system fight against ‘foreign invaders’. Also, each day I take multivitamins and multiminerals and probiotics, which I feel help my intestinal ‘flora’.

During the coronavirus pandemic, I only have to phone for a check-up once every three months in order to receive the repeat prescription of my constipation medication. It’s an ailment I’ve had since childhood and has been a trigger for all sorts of ill-health complications. I’ve no doubt others have experienced intestinal issues, especially when I looked around the room at my specialist’s office at my last visit.

I made many phone calls to get an appointment for my Covid-19 vaccination. Here in France, people are given an appointment but it is not uncommon for them to change their minds and not show up. I have received my first vaccination thanks to a no-show, which created a gap in the vaccination schedule. On the day of my vaccination, there were people lined up outside the clinic after closing time, all hoping to get their shot.

There are ups and downs to the ageing process. Ill health affects our independence and sense of wellbeing. However, those of our generation are made of ‘tough stuff’. There’s a lot of truth to the sentiment of ‘soldier on’, because that’s what many Baby Boomers tend to do.

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