No home? We’ll do a house call.
- by: Kathleen Noonan From: The Courier-Mail June 28, 2012 12:00AM
CHANGING LIVES: Dr Jim O’Connell and a nurse treat a patient who is sleeping rough on the streets of Brisbane. The new program treats minor ailments before they become serious. Picture: Marc Robertson
IT IS after dark on a recent bleak, cold night in Brisbane when two nurses set out to make “house calls” to the city’s homeless men, women and children, bringing health care to the street in an innovative program.
“The nightly nurse visits have been running for only weeks but already has real results,” Micah Projects co-ordinator Karyn Walsh said.
One homeless man on Brisbane’s streets, a chronic alcoholic, used to visit the city’s busy major hospital emergency departments up to three times a night. Now, the street-side check-ups have all but halted this cycle, tending to his minor health concerns before they become medical emergencies.
Ms Walsh said this kind of early health care made economic sense, with its hands-on holistic approach.
The team tracks down Brisbane’s most vulnerable where they live – under a bridge, on someone’s couch, in a park, in low-cost houses – looks at the reality of their lives and, with early intervention, improves their health.
Brisbane’s street nurses spearhead the Homeless-to-Home healthcare program, a Micah Projects, Mater Health Services and Medicare partnership, which cares for everything from burns and infections to management of chronic conditions like arthritis, cancer and heart disease.
The house calls are the brainchild of Dr Jim O’Connell, a leading international expert on health care and homelessness, who visited Brisbane recently for a national roundtable on how Australia cares for its rough sleepers.
“When people are trying to survive, are hyper vigilant, exposed to the elements and violence, and searching for food, their physical and mental health deteriorates badly. On top of that, like the general population, they have cancer, liver, kidney and heart disease but it is often undiagnosed, so it kills them. Imagine being a diabetic on the street? Where do you keep your insulin and needles?”
Dr O’Connell dreamed of being a country doctor when he graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1982. Now, more than two decades later as the founding physician of Boston’s Healthcare for the Homeless program, he still rides in the outreach van two nights a week.
“It keeps me in touch with what’s important,” he said.
He is the man behind the Vulnerability Index Survey, a tool for prioritising housing and health care for the homeless, now being used extensively throughout the world and Australia. Of the 1522 homeless people surveyed nationally, half reported 2245 hospital admissions in the past year, costing the public health system $9.36 million.