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Sad closure of St Joseph’s Hospital will not leave palliative care worse off, experts say

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St Vincent’s Health Care Australia says an “extremely difficult” decision to close St Joseph’s Hospital in western Sydney came after years of trying to secure a viable future for the historic site.

The Sisters of Charity established the hospital in 1886 originally in Parramatta for the treatment of consumption patients and today it is a 39-bed facility in Auburn providing in-patient and out-patient services in palliative care, rehabilitation, mental health and specialist care for Huntington Disease and MS patients.

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Staff were informed of the decision to decommission the hospital in early July and the hospital is scheduled to close on 18 September.

A number of friends of the hospital, including a staff member who did not want to be identified, contacted The Catholic Weekly to voice their anger and disappointment at a lack of consultation about the impending closure with staff, under-investment in the hospital over the last decade and concerns for the current patients.

One mourned the loss of a Catholic hospital with a “beautiful culture that is truly Catholic.”

David Graham’s brother received palliative care at the hospital in 2020 and said it had a “beautiful history” and ethos imbued by the Sisters of Charity, which will now end.

“I don’t see that it’s much different here from what’s happened in the ACT with the government’s closure of Calvary Hospital, except that in this case it’s the hospital’s own parent Catholic hospital that has made the decision,” Mr Graham said.

But St Vincent’s says that its ageing buildings and infrastructure are no longer fit for purpose and it cannot afford the capital investment required for an upgrade.

“Despite our best efforts over the past 10 years, we have not been able to secure the necessary funding to address the deteriorating infrastructure,” said St Vincent’s in a statement.

“Another challenge has been that owing to the hospital’s relatively small size, it has become difficult to operate as a stand-alone hospital in a viable way, despite the extraordinary work of our staff.”

Acting CEO of Palliative Care NSW Megan Asbury said that the organisation had not been made aware of the planned closure of St Joseph’s ahead of the public announcement.

However, Palliative Care NSW understood that without significant additional funding to support building work and repairs, St Joseph’s would no longer be able to provide high-quality palliative care.

“With planned expansions at Auburn and Westmead Hospital Palliative Care Units we are confident that the surrounding palliative care services in western Sydney will continue to provide this care to members of the St Joseph’s community,” Ms Asbury said.

“While the patient and family experience will differ in these settings, compared to the small St Joseph’s service, the level of care will be of the high quality that Western Sydney patients and families should expect.

“We hope in the future that such discussions engage meaningfully with all stakeholders to ensure staff, patients, families and the community as a whole can have confidence in how and where palliative care will be provided in their communities.”

St Vincent’s said that it had been seeking funding and exploring development options since 2009.

“In more recent years we have been working with the NSW Ministry of Health to identify a viable strategic option for St Joseph’s, including relocating to the Westmead campus (which involved exploration of two different viable options) and developing the existing site at Auburn to improve scale and amenity (involving two planning options),” St Vincent’s said.

“Despite significant efforts to explore these options, previous governments prioritised investment in other facilities across western Sydney, including the growth of sub-acute services at Westmead and Auburn Hospitals.”

St Vincent’s said the congregation of the Sisters of Charity were consulted about the decision to close St Joseph’s, along with the trustees of Mary Aikenhead Ministries.

“Both are saddened but are fully understanding of the decision.”

It added that there was no decision yet on what they will do with the site but that there will be no loss of health services to the people of NSW or Western Sydney.

“St Vincent’s has promised not to close the hospital until it secures transfers of services to care for existing patients, with Western Sydney LHD has agreed to take on all the existing activity of St Joseph’s—which will mean a smooth transition of care for all our patients, including our MND, Huntington’s, Palliative Care and Mental Health patients—whose care is very specialised.”

Western Sydney Local Health District would also offer “as many opportunities as possible” for St Joseph’s staff to move across with the transferred services in order to minimise disruption, St Vincent’s said.

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