Health Services Demand
The limited information provided by the Department of Health demonstrated that there was an increase in demand for health services during the mine fire, namely increased presentations to Nurse-On-Call and general practitioners. However, the information appears to relate only to respiratory illnesses and therefore may not be representative of all additional health presentations related to exposure to smoke and ash, for example headaches, nose bleeds and other conditions. Other sources of information were not provided and meaningful comparisons are hard to make.
Dr Christopher Brook, State Health and Medical Commander, reported to the Board that demand for health services arising from the Hazelwood mine fire was manageable, and additional resources were not required.42 Nevertheless, a health assessment centre was established on 21 February 2014 and operated until 30 March 2014.43
The Department of Health monitored the demand for health services relating to respiratory illnesses in the local area during the Hazelwood mine fire. No information relating to demand for general practice consultations was available prior to 28 February 2014, and after that date only subjective trend assessments were provided. The only comparison year given in these assessments was 2013, which may not have been typical. No information was provided to the Board on deaths occurring in the community during the period of the mine fire. No information was provided in relation to consultations at community pharmacies.
The Board heard from a number of community members that they did not seek medical attention, despite suffering a number of distressing symptoms. Dr Brook accepted that the symptoms suffered by members of the local community would not necessarily prompt them to seek medical attention.44
Between 9 February 2014 and 10 March 2014, 46 calls were taken by the Nurse-On-Call service that related to respiratory problems, compared with 15 calls for the same period in 2013, and 18 calls for the same period in 2012. These calls were mostly made from localities within Morwell and Traralgon postcode areas.
Almost two-thirds of calls (61 per cent) were queries relating to the health of an adult. Calls were mainly about breathing difficulties (39 per cent), asthma (24 per cent) and cough (24 per cent).45
Respiratory-related priority dispatches (as a proportion of total dispatches) for the Gippsland region or Morwell area (encompassing localities falling within a 50 kilometre radius of the Hazelwood mine) for the period 9 February–10 March 2014, did not significantly differ from the same period in 2013.
No information was provided to the Board in relation to specific periods during the mine fire when PM2.5 levels were very high (ie 15–18 February, 21–25 February and 26–28 February 2014). The only comparison year provided by the Department of Health was 2013, which may not have been typical.46
The Department of Health obtained figures in relation to demand for general practitioners during the mine fire by asking general practice managers for their opinions about the level of demand they had experienced.
From 19 February 2014 (10 days after the commencement of the Hazelwood mine fire), general practitioner practices in Morwell, Moe, Churchill and Traralgon reported an increase in consultations related to respiratory conditions (breathing difficulties or asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) exacerbation, coughing or throat irritations), anxiety associated with increased smoke and ash, and requests for carbon monoxide testing.47
The Board heard from some residents that it was difficult to obtain an appointment with their general practitioner. Ms Wilson explained: ‘it’s hard to get GP appointments here in the Latrobe Valley because of the lack of medical staff, but in the end that’s where I went.’48
The Board notes that the Latrobe Valley has fewer general practitioners per 1,000 head of population than the Victorian average.49
Figure 4.43 General practitioner presentations between 28 February 2014 and 4 April 201450
Figure 4.43 shows that there was increased activity at general practices during the week starting 28 February 2014, but that this gradually subsided. However, Figure 4.43 does not take into account the first few weeks of the fire, the period between 9 February 2014 and 28 February 2014. The Department of Health did not report information relevant to this time period.
Between 15 February 2014 and 10 March 2014, the average daily presentations to the Latrobe Regional Hospital emergency department were higher in 2014 compared to previous years (see Figure 4.44). Despite this, average daily presentations were significantly lower for residents of Morwell in 2014, compared to average presentations in 2012 and 2013. That is, during the mine fire, more people attended Latrobe Regional Hospital, however fewer of those patients were from Morwell. The 2014 data may have been incomplete and the data did not account for population changes in the areas over years, or include residents of Morwell who may have presented to other hospital emergency departments.51
Figure 4.44 Presentations to Latrobe Regional Hospital 15 February–10 March in 2012 to 201452
Dr Lester commented that ‘the comforting thing about this is that we did not fortunately see any severe health effects in terms of increased presentations to hospital, increases in ambulance all outs.’54