Ambulances waste a year waiting in emergency

HUNTER ambulances have wasted the equivalent of a year sitting at overcrowded hospital emergency departments in the past two financial years.

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A Newcastle Herald investigation has uncovered the length of time the region’s ambulance fleet has been trapped in ‘‘access block’’ while waiting to transfer patients, and the true scale of the hospital overcrowding crisis.

According to NSW Ambulance data, paramedics waited 307,711 minutes at five Hunter emergency departments last financial year, a jump of more than 38per cent from 221,749 minutes in 2009-10.

The combined total is equivalent to an ambulance waiting 24 hours a day for 366 days, and excludes the maximum 30 minutes allowed for each ambulance to offload a patient under state government performance criteria.

Emergency department staff who spoke to the Herald on condition of anonymity said the problem was directly attributable to a lack of staff and resources needed to meet increasing demand.

Health Services Union Hunter sub-branch president Peter Rumball said access-block or bed-block had unfortunately become the “accepted norm” in the region.

Mr Rumball said the problem had resulted in a “blowout” in ambulance response times across the region and was compromising patient care and safety.

He said paramedics were being treated as de facto nurses, monitoring and assisting patients in queued ambulances, corridors and designated off-load areas.

“We are pre-hospital care, our ambulances should be out on the road responding to emergencies, not stuck at hospitals,” he said.

“Hospital care is what doctors and nurses do. The situation has got completely out of hand and our response times are suffering badly.”

Ambulance crews transporting patients to hospitals were kept off the road for more than two hours on 585 occasions last financial year, up from 387 the previous year.

Hunter New England Health’s director of acute networks Todd McEwan said there was a 3.35 per cent increase in emergency department presentations at John Hunter, Maitland, Belmont and Calvary Mater Newcastle hospitals between 2009-10 and last financial year.

Mr McEwan said patient safety was the highest priority and emergency department staff worked “very hard” to meet increasing demand.

A spokeswoman for the Ambulance Service of NSW confirmed it was working on a new policy that would allow paramedics to leave patients with minor illnesses or injuries in emergency department waiting rooms.

She said there was no official start date yet as the policy was still under negotiation with health providers.

But the spokeswoman conceded it would have limited impact on access block because “the number of patients for whom the policy will change their destination within the emergency department will be low”.

It will only apply to “low acuity pathway” patients in a limited set of conditions.

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