National cabinet to consider lifting ban on elective surgeries and IVF amid warnings of backlog

As the national cabinet considers resuming elective surgeries and IVF treatment, there are concerns over a backlog of patients building the longer it waits.

Diana Cassar says her IVF treatment has been put on hold.

Diana Cassar says her IVF treatment has been put on hold. Source: Supplied

Calls are mounting for a coronavirus ban on elective surgeries and IVF treatment to be lifted, with national cabinet set to discuss the matter on Tuesday.

It's anticipated their meeting will review a plan to sign off on the services resuming after seeing a flattening of the contagion's spread. 

The Federal Government suspended the medical treatments last month to free up beds, personal protective equipment and ease demand on health facilities.


IVF patients anxiously await access to treatment

Most IVF services have been halted due to the ban, with the exemption of some ongoing treatments considered by doctors "urgent" to continue.

Diana Cassar with her family.
Diana Cassar with her family. Source: Supplied

Diana Cassar, who is trying to conceive her second child through IVF, has had her access to treatment postponed by the health crisis.  

"If we were to wait for 12 months, it just puts everything on hold for an unknown period of time," the 38-year-old told SBS News.

Ms Cassar questioned why IVF treatment has been considered an elective surgery given its importance to those who depend on it. 

But she is hopeful of a resolution soon allowing access to the treatment. 

"Our hope is that the ban will be lifted … that we will get the clearance to move forward," she said.

Rebecca is another woman whose IVF access has been prevented, delaying her hopes of becoming a first-time mother.

"COVID-19 blew everything up. It's sad - it's scary … [I'm] a little bit angry, nervous, anxious - it's kind of everything all in one," the 36-year-old told SBS News.

The Brisbane-based woman is concerned any time lost could pose a risk to her chances of having a child.

"Having everything put on hold - it is the unknown of not knowing when it will come," she said. 

"Any month is another month of deteriorating further."

National cabinet to discuss elective surgery options

State and federal leaders will discuss the issue of resuming surgery options at a national cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

All non-urgent elective surgeries have been suspended, with only category one and urgent category two procedures allowed to go ahead.

The Australian Medical Association has backed calls for a gradual restart, but has warned personal protective equipment must be in abundant supply before this can happen. 

AMA president Tony Bartone said doctors should be authorised to make decisions about what surgeries can proceed.

"The AMA supports treatment proceeding as determined by doctors," he said.

"It would be logical to restart procedures at low risk of spreading COVID-19 and of high benefit to the patient, and this would include IVF treatments."

Health Minister Greg Hunt has foreshadowed the national cabinet will discuss if certain elective surgeries, including IVF procedures, could resume.

Australia's deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth said a good approach is for low-risk surgeries with high benefits for patients to be considered first.

"It will be a very cautious and safe, but ultimately consumer- and patient-focused, reintroduction of elective surgery into the Australian health system," Dr Coatsworth told reporters in Canberra on Monday.

"We recognise that there are Australians out there who are in pain, have a disability, can't be in the workforce, need to take very potent pain medication that need their elective surgery done."

Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Health Minister Greg Hunt. Source: AAP

The Australian Patients Association's Stephen Mason said recommencing elective surgeries would prevent a backlog of patients building. 

"We are worried about the backlog," he told SBS News.

"There are a lot of empty beds in hospitals … and there are surgeons that are idle and there are patients that are suffering as a result."

The Australian Society of Anaesthetists has also said any lifting of measures must be done with caution so the hard work of social distancing isn't undone.

IVF services await government advice

President of the Fertility Society of Australia Professor Luk Rombauts told SBS News most IVF units around the country have gone into hibernation. 

He said many parents had initially been concerned a six to 12 months delay could see them lose "their last opportunity to have a baby".

"We certainly have had many distressed and anxious patients who are older who feel they have been let down by all of this," he said.

But he believes Australia is now in a position to consider reopening IVF facilities. 

"What that will mean and when that will come into play is something we are all hoping to hear," he said. 

Brisbane-based gynecologist Devini Ameratunga said recommencing services for patients moving forwarded must be done "carefully".

She said given the number "waiting to be given the go ahead" to start treatment "immediately" there would have to be a "staggered approach".

"We don’t want to be in a position where we are going to have all these patients who are needing to have procedures."

Medical Director at Melbourne IVF Dr Lyndon Hale said lifting restrictions would require strict social distancing and infection control measures.

"The longer the delay goes the greater the number of couples that may miss out completely on having a family," he told SBS News.

With AAP

5 min read
Published 20 April 2020 at 7:04pm
By Tom Stayner