Mr Hunt said he and his state and territory counterparts had discussed how to expand the health workforce – including GPs, aged care workers and hospital staff – at Friday’s Coalition of Australian Governments health council meeting.
It comes as state and territory governments grapple with the issue of how to deal with a potential surge in demand if a large coronavirus outbreak happens in Australia.
State health officials were due to meet private hospital operators, who have offered to take over elective surgery cases from the public system, via teleconference on Wednesday evening.
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy told a Senate estimates hearing in Canberra on Wednesday that “most elective surgeries” in public hospitals would have to be cancelled if the coronavirus spreads widely in Australia.
“To create capacity in the system to contain an outbreak, we will certainly have to cancel elective surgery,” Dr Murphy said. “You would have to cancel most elective surgery.”
Australian public hospitals perform 758,000 elective surgeries a year, including heart surgery, breast reconstruction, knee and hip replacements and urological surgery on organs such as the bladder, urethra and kidneys.
Grattan Institute health economist Stephen Duckett said state governments should immediately launch tenders for public hospital contracting of services that may need to be moved out of the public system to make way for coronavirus patients.
“A rational state government should go to tender now and say ‘we are maybe going to need some of your beds and critical care units’,” Dr Duckett told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
As health authorities on Wednesday confirmed the third case of community transmission in Australia was a health worker at a Ryde hospital, Professor Murphy said it “may not be possible to contain” or “completely stop” the virus from spreading.
But, he said, contact tracing and isolation of new cases “can materially delay the rate of that spread”.
Professor Murphy said public hospitals in NSW and Victoria would be “sensible” to follow in Queensland’s footsteps and bring forward elective surgeries to free up capacity.
“Whether they bring forward elective surgeries or not, if we have a big outbreak they will need to cancel elective surgery,” he said.
“To free up capacity, you would have to cancel most elective work, particularly the sort of elective work that leads to critical care and bed utilisation.”
NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said when asked if the state would bring forward elective surgeries that “everything is on the table”.
Mr Hunt would not commit to paying for surgery performed in the private system on behalf of state hospitals in the case of a large coronavirus outbreak, or comment on the potential cost.
“I won’t get ahead of where we are, we have said last week at COAG, and I will stick to this, that we will work co-operatively with the states’ requirements as they emerge,” he said.
The states are seeking federal funding to help pay for any elective surgeries that must be performed in private hospitals, with NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard having told the Herald and The Age last week an escalation of the coronavirus outbreak would have “large financial implications”.
With Rachel Clun
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.