Babysitting ambulances

FOR more than 10years, ambulance officers and their union have been complaining about the amount of time they spend in Hunter hospital carparks, waiting with their patients while the hospitals find them a bed.

Or, in some cases, while they find them a trolley in the hall.

When the problem – which became known as ‘‘access block’’ – was raised in 2002, the health service head of the day, Katherine McGrath, blamed it on a large increase in patients.

The ambulance officers have ventilated their concerns regularly since then, and the health service embarked on at least one detailed study aimed at finding a permanent end to a persistent problem.

But none of the procedural changes or staffing shuffles seem to have done any permanent good. New figures obtained by the Herald give the public the clearest picture yet of delays that vary from hospital to hospital – the Calvary Mater is the worst – but which are clearly entrenched across the board.

The figures pertain to urgent or ‘‘priority’’ one patients taken by ambulance to the Hunter’s four main hospitals – John Hunter, the Mater, Belmont and Maitland – and the Newcastle mental health unit over the past two financial years.

Each year the five hospitals received about 30,000 ‘‘priority one’’ patients by ambulance. About 60per cent to 65per cent were admitted ‘‘on time’’ within 30minutes, against a government benchmark of 90per cent. Most of the remainder were admitted within the next two hours. But a substantial number were not.

Worryingly, the 2010-11 figures were generally worse than the 2009-10 results.

The total excess waiting time amounted to 5128 hours last year, an increase of nearly 40per cent on the 2009-10 figure of 3698 hours.

The latest idea to ease the problem is an ambulance service proposal to allow paramedics to leave patients with minor illnesses or injuries in emergency waiting rooms.

While there may be some logic to this move the ambulance union predicts so few ambulance patients will fit the ‘‘drop-off’’ criteria that the change will have little material impact.

Regardless of the reasons for the delays, ambulances should be out on the road or ready for their next job, not tied up in hospital parking areas, babysitting patients.

Easter is a special time for families to come to together to celebrate a long weekend.

In this context, the tragic death of young architecture student, Robbie Davis, in a car accident at Lambton this week, will resonate with so many in the Hunter.

Robbie, 22, from South Australia, was due to graduate with an architecture degree from the University of Newcastle next Friday. Instead, his family will make a heartbreaking visit to the Hunter to receive the degree on the popular young student’s behalf.

Easter will never be the same for Robbie’s family as they grieve over his loss. That grief will be shared by many in this region.

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