At least three WA children seriously ill with cancer will have to go interstate for vital radiation therapy in the next two months because health officials have failed to find a replacement for the State's only specialist who is going on leave.
Health authorities admit they are battling to cope with the number of children needing the State's only paediatric radiation oncologist and have no choice but to send several Princess Margaret Hospital patients and their carers to Eastern States hospitals when the doctor goes on holiday next month.
The West Australian understands the doctor, one of only a few in Australia who specialise in giving radiation therapy to children, has not taken a holiday in about seven years and in the past has been recalled from her leave to treat patients.
One affected family and WA's peak medical group said it showed a lack of workforce planning.
Richard and Claire Caldow, parents of three-year-old Archie, said they were devastated to learn they had to take their son to Sydney's Westmead Hospital next month and are likely to be there for Christmas.
Australian Medical Association WA spokesman Dave Mountain said health administrators had to allow for staff going on leave and should have made provisions for a replacement rather than uprooting seriously ill children from their homes.
"It's hard to imagine that when you only have a single practitioner and you know that person has to take leave at some time, that you would not be well organised and have made allowances," Dr Mountain said.
"I can't believe it's that impossible to find a locum service with that much forward notice.
"But if that's the case, you wonder why they didn't start training up someone else to be able to step in.
"This isn't much of a Christmas present to these children and their families."
Robyn Lawrence, executive director of Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, which co-ordinates the State's cancer services, confirmed that "a small number" of PMH cancer patients were being asked to travel to the Eastern States.
"We appreciate the significant inconvenience this poses to families and understand how difficult this may be for them," Dr Lawrence said. "There are very few oncologists specialising in this field in Australia and as a result finding a locum able to travel to Perth to cover the leave was difficult.
"This is a temporary measure and flights and accommodation for the patients and their primary carers will be covered by WA Health."
In a letter to the Caldows, PMH's oncology and haematology department head Angela Alessandri acknowledged the stress it would cause families.
She said the State Government had agreed to fund two extra radiation oncologists and the positions would be advertised soon, with a preference for doctors who had experience or interest in paediatrics.
"With the population growth in WA over the last few years and the consequent increase in the number of children diagnosed with cancer each year, we have become increasingly aware that an increase in paediatric radiation oncology services is essential," Dr Alessandri wrote.
WA Clinical Oncology Group chief executive Paul Katris said the lack of cancer specialists was a continuing problem.
He said paediatric radiation oncol-ogy was a highly specialised area because the dosages given to children needed to be monitored carefully.