Cairns University Hospital Redevelopment

Briefing Note Summary


Cairns Hospital has now reached capacity across all bed types.

The CHHHS has developed a plan to meet current and future bed demand and attract high caliber clinicians to provide more and higher complexity health services.

Cairns Hospital will become a University Hospital after investment is provided to support two development phases – (1) optimising Cairns Hospital to create additional bed space and building a Cairns Health and Innovation Centre (CHIC) in parallel with James Cook University’s Cairns Tropical Enterprise Centre (CTEC), both to be located in a Health and Knowledge Precinct; and (2) building a new acute clinical services building.

Phase 1 is now progressing, with State Government committing $4.4M for the detailed business case and $15M for land acquisition.

$9M is urgently sought to commence planning now for phase 2 (new acute services building) to enable Cairns Hospital to meet the continued projected growth in demand for health services.

The Issue

Addressing critical health issues in FNQ

The Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service’s (CHHHS) operations extend beyond the Cairns and Hinterland regions to some of the most remote communities in Queensland, with a population increasingly experiencing complex, chronic conditions above national averages.

Clinical research, education, and expanded health services are critical to meeting the health needs of Tropical North Queensland’s growing population. Investment in health facilities in Cairns is vital to support this goal and address the following sustainability challenges facing Cairns Hospital.

  • Short- and long-term infrastructure capacity – Cairns Hospital is at capacity across all bed types now. By 2036/37, this gap will be more than 300 beds. Capacity is a critical risk and planning is needed now for a new acute clinical services building to ensure sustainable health service delivery.
  • Site constraints and resilience – Cairns Hospital is the smallest block of developable land for comparable hospitals, and the location creates service continuity risk (via flooding).
  • Workforce, innovation, and care closer to home – the CHHHS needs to grow a local health workforce to enable more services to be delivered closer to home and facilitate research and innovation to inform models of care.

Transitioning Cairns Hospital to university hospital status will allow the hospital to deliver world-class, high-quality care to address the critical current and future health challenges facing TNQ. This will result in more complex medical and surgical services, with more skilled and highly trained clinicians. To do this, the CHHHS needs strong linkages with education and research and enough bed capacity to provide critical health services.

The Cairns University Hospital will enable enhanced education and research, meaning more Cairns and TNQ locals can complete their entire health/clinical education and training in the Cairns region. It will also facilitate research in areas that are relevant to our region and embed the research outcomes into better health services.

To deliver on the vision of Cairns University Hospital, CHHHS needs to progress phase 1 (CHIC) and planning for Phase 2 (new acute clinical services building) – with both facilities in close proximity to Cairns Hospital. A complementary element of the CHIC will be JCU’s expansion of local education pathways for the JCU Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) program to offer years 1-6 in Cairns, as well as the introduction of allied health programs into Cairns.


Progressing and planning for Cairns University Hospital

The Cairns Hospital supports an estimated resident population of 259,000 and regularly provides acute medical services for residents of the Cape and Torres region (population of 27,928), an area larger than Victoria. Combined with estimated population growth of 1.46% (compound annual growth rate) per annum and an ageing population, it is estimated that by 2026 an additional 27,643 people will reside in the catchment area with close to one in five residents aged over 65.

The Cairns Hospital continues to see increased demand on its Emergency Department. In 2019-2020 there were 71,690 presentations to the Cairns Hospital Emergency Department, averaging 211 patients per day (a 4% increase on the previous year). In 2021, there was further increased pressure on the Emergency Department with an average of 236 patients presenting each day. Increasingly, there is demand for specialist services and elective surgery, placing additional pressure on Cairns Hospital.

The two phases of the Cairns University Hospital Redevelopment Project have broad partner support and seek to build on successive government investments. CHHHS, supported by the Northern Queensland Primary Healthcare Network (NQPHN), JCU, and other tertiary institutions, is seeking to improve the ability of Cairns to build its own medical, nursing, and allied health workforce and translate research into practice to improve health outcomes in our community.

To ensure the best outcomes for Far North Queensland and to ensure the maximum efficacy of the University Hospital, a suite of other primary health and community measures are being developed to ease capacity restraints on the hospital, improve community health services, and divert patients to more appropriate care settings.

Next Steps

To successfully transition Cairns Hospital to Cairns University Hospital, an expansion of bed capacity and selected specialty services is required over coming years, potentially including endoscopy, paediatrics, and other medical and surgical specialties. This will also include new expanded clinical and professorial roles. This will be delivered through strong partnerships, the right infrastructure, and expanded provision of safe and sustainable clinical services for TNQ.

There are two phases to growing Cairns Hospital’s infrastructure, services, and research to transition to a university hospital.

Phase 1: Optimise and Innovate – A measure to maintain capacity, comprising:

  •  Immediate implementation of capacity solutions to meet the existing bed capacity issues and refurbish the Emergency Department.
  • Optimising the use of existing assets at Cairns Hospital to continue to meet bed demand over the short term.
  • Constructing the Cairns Health and Innovation Centre (CHIC), bringing together innovation in clinical services, research, education, and training and enabling further capacity by relocating some functions from Cairns Hospital.

It is intended that phase 1 of the Cairns University Hospital Redevelopment Project will complement JCU’s CTEC, a multi-disciplinary teaching and research facility with a focus on the application of digital technologies that has received a $60M Federal Government grant, including a contribution towards acquiring land for the facility. The CHIC and CTEC will be located in the Health and Innovation Precinct.

The State Government has committed $4.4M for a detailed business case for phase 1, plus $15M for land acquisition for the CHIC, however further investment will be required to deliver on the proposal, pending finalisation of the business case in late 2022.

Phase 2: Transform – Develop a new acute clinical services building:

Construction of a new acute clinical services building near Cairns Hospital to expand the hospital footprint and address resilience risks. It is anticipated an additional 300 beds would be created, with the new building facilitating the delivery of more complex medical and surgical services closer to home.

The most critical next step is to fund a $9M business case for phase 2 (Transform), which is urgently required to address the medium-term bed capacity issues being faced by Cairns Hospital. Funding for land acquisition to support phase 2 will also be required.

Our Recommendation

  • That the State Government commits the full funding to increase bed capacity at Cairns Hospital (phase 1: Optimise) and the Cairns Health and Innovation Centre (phase 1: Innovate), including capital costs.
  • That $9M is urgently provided now to fund the full business case process for a new acute clinical service building to enable Cairns Hospital to meet current and growing health service demands (phase 2: transform).
  • That funding is committed to acquire land to support the new acute clinical services building (phase 2: Transform).

Sources Queensland Treasury, Service Delivery Statements, Queensland Health 2019-2020