New shadow minister for health Dr Bastian Seidel on the problems with Tasmania’s health system and the future of the Mersey

Only six months after entering politics, Huonville’s Dr Bastian Seidel has been handed the responsibility of making the health portfolio the poisoned chalice it is often claimed to be for Minister Sarah Courtney.

Dr Seidel was appointed Labor’s shadow health minister in a reshuffle announced on Monday.

The new position means Dr Seidel will be going head-to-head with Ms Courtney, and will also be charged with developing Labor’s alternative health policy.

The newly-minted shadow minister seemed fascinated rather than fearful of the “opportunity” lying before him when he spoke with The Advocate.

“It’s the portfolio that makes a huge difference if you get it right,” he said shortly after his appointment was announced.

“We are in parliament to make difficult decisions … I didn’t expect to just make popular choices, that’s not why I entered politics.”

HEALTH PROBLEM

After about 10 years of working in Tasmania’s health system as a rural GP, Dr Seidel said he’d noticed two main problems he would like to tackle politically – ambulance response times and accessibility, and the state’s growing patient appointment and elective surgery lists.

“When people have a life-threatening emergency, they really should be able to call an ambulance and know that they will not have to wait two hours,” he said.

“That really is an issue in rural areas.

“If you are in a regional area where the next major hospital is hours away you really should be able to depend on your ambulance. There should be a comparable response time between metropolitan and regional areas.”

Current Health Minister Sarah Courtney. Picture: Simon Sturzaker
 Current Health Minister Sarah Courtney. Picture: Simon Sturzaker

He said he couldn’t blame paramedics, who were “working as hard as they can”.

“The problem is not our ambulance officers … they need more support, they certainly need more funding, and we need to offer more training” he said.

“That is important because you know that this could be life saving.”

His second priority, Tasmania’s lengthy patient and elective surgery lists, is one that frequently makes national headlines.

“For the North-Wests, there’s services you can’t even get,” he said.

“Five years wait to see a neurosurgeon. And you don’t have access to a pain specialist anywhere, so in the meantime where do people go? The only person is a rural GP. It just doesn’t make any sense.”

THE SOLUTION

The solution, he says, lies in funding. More of it. Wiser spending.

In her time as the Premier of Tasmania, Lara Giddings pointed out the fact that more and more of the state budget is going towards health each year. In 2020, 33 per cent of Tasmania’s budget, or $2.5 billion, was set aside for health.

However, for Dr Seidel, spending on health is a necessary solution to Tasmania’s problems.

“We don’t see health as a cost item, we see it as an investment,” he said.

“But it’s got to be a prudent investment.”

He said one area where costs could improve was in emergency departments.

“If you are a patient who presents to the emergency department, the cost is about $500 to the government,” he said.

“If the same patient presented to a GP the cost to the government is an average of $37.

“We have to have a little think about how we can guide patients to have better access to see a GP, it might be urgent but it might be something a GP could deal with.

“There’s about 160,000 presentations to the ED each year …. the vast majority, I think it’s about 80 per cent, are being discharged. They’re not being admitted but there’s a cost to the taxpayer anyway.”

Dr Seidel ruled out the idea of a fee for non-urgent presentations as a way to deter people from presenting.

“It’s got to be education, it means making it more attractive for people to access GPs,” he said.

“It’s very tempting as a politician to come up with a magic solution, a quick fix. But policy needs to be evidence based. And it’s not rocket science, they’re doing this stuff in other countries and it’s working.”

Picture: Simon Sturzaker
 Picture: Simon Sturzaker

MERSEY MERCY

In 2015 and 2016, Dr Seidel tweeted that the Mersey Community Hospital “exists due to political pork barrelling and parochialism. Now – we all pay for it”, and that the state had “too many hospitals”.

He did not directly answer when asked for this article if he stood by those sentiments, but said the 2016 tweet was about an editorial that was critical of the health system.

“It’s not good enough to just put more hospitals in Tasmania,” he said.

“The thinking has got to stop that healthcare is delivered by bricks and mortar. It’s no good to build them and then not start them.”

Latrobe has had a hospital since 1889.

However, Dr Seidel did say he was “committed to keeping the Mersey running”.

“I believe there is a bright future for the Mersey Hospital … but we need to have people there,” he said.

“We need to make it attractive enough that people want to stay and live there and see a career path ahead of them.

He said he saw merit in a proposal by the Rural Doctors Association, which would see the facility become a training hub for rural generalist practitioners – doctors who are trained in a wide variety of skills needed for a rural community, particularly emergency medicine.

He said he would also be up at Latrobe, Smithton and Burnie in the coming week as part of a recently announced inquiry into rural health.