NT kids missing out on vital services, commission told

Photo: Stefan Armbruster

Children with developmental delays in the Northern Territory are missing out on crucial, early treatment because health services aren’t available, or there are long waiting times, pediatricians at Alice Springs Hospital have warned.

In a submission to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, the doctors said there weren’t enough allied health services in the Northern Territory to cope—and the government needs to act.

Allied health practitioners are professionals who are not doctors or nurses but who help manage physical and mental health, including psychologists, physiotherapists and social workers.

“We know of clients with severe developmental delay in remote Central Australian communities that have not seen any allied health professionals by the age of 18 months, thus missing out on any early intervention at a time when intervention is most effective,” they said.

“Older children with behavioural problems that have not received psychology and other mental health services are at greater risk of developing more challenging anti-social behaviour, encounters with the juvenile justice service and subsequent detention.”

The submission from the Pediatrics Department at the Alice Springs Hospital was among 62 published publicly by the royal commission this week.

In their submission the department’s four pediatricians—Deborah Fearon, Carolyn Maclennon, Kesan Satharasinghe and Alina Iser—said they provided inpatient and outpatient services to Alice Springs babies, children and young people.

They also provided regular clinic services to Tennant Creek and remote Indigenous communities in central Australia and the APY lands in South Australia.

“Management of children with developmental and behavioural problems requires a multidisciplinary approach and there are insufficient allied health professionals (speech therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, social workers and psychologists) to assess and provide ongoing early intervention to children with special needs,” their submission said.

Outpatient pediatric referrals for behavioural and/or developmental problems accounted for 40 percent at Alice Springs Hospital, 50 percent at Royal Darwin Hospital and 75 percent at one of the biggest Aboriginal medical services in the NT, they said.

At the time of lodging the submission they said there was no speech therapist for children in remote Central Australia

“In Darwin, there is a 12-month wait for an initial allied health assessment,” they said. “But at least in Darwin there are a few private allied health providers. They do not exist in Central Australia and the waiting time for referral to the Child Development team at Flynn Drive Community Centre, Alice Springs is currently 24 months.”

The doctors said the NT urgently needed a human resource strategy that addressed staff numbers, skill mix, staff placement based on needs, recruitment, retention, supervision and professional development.

“Without the development of an equitable allied health service, a medical check up by a pediatrician is almost worthless,” they said.

“We know the need and we need action from the Northern Territory government to address the problem.”

Wendy Caccetta

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