EDITORIAL: Tackling hospital delays

THE single biggest thing the NSW government could do to reduce the worsening problem of ambulance delays at hospitals would be to provide more hospital beds.

But that vital measure is conspicuously lacking from the list of proposals released by the government yesterday to counter a damning new report from the auditor-general.

That report  found that, over the past year, one in three ambulances in NSW waited more than 30 minutes to hand over patients at hospitals.

Gosford Hospital had the state’s worst average delay of 42 minutes, while John Hunter Hospital’s average was 36 minutes.

The figure for John Hunter was significantly worse than the previous year’s average delay of 32 minutes, representing a 12.5per cent deterioration.

Across the state, the report found that crews wasted 84,680 hours waiting at hospitals instead of responding to emergencies.

That compares to 78,224 wasted hours the year before and 58,399 the year before that.

The auditor-general, Peter Achterstraat, noted:  ‘‘The longer ambulance crews are at hospitals the less time they are available to respond to the next emergency.’’

While fewer ambulances are available to respond to emergency calls, victims of medical emergencies must wait longer for ambulances that may have to come from further away. The dangers inherent in this equation should be obvious.

One of the main reasons ambulances find themselves log-jammed at hospitals is that those hospitals have too few beds. When a new patient requires admission, a bed can’t always be found, resulting in a scramble for solutions such as stretchers and armchairs in hallways and corridors.

While the government appears determined to avoid tackling this aspect of the issue, it has floated some other measures that may help reduce the ambulance delays.

These include using more single paramedics to respond to less seriously ill patients, transferring less critical patients to registered nurses at emergency departments, using private companies or health service vehicles to transport non-emergency patients and asking triple-0 operators to refer non-emergency calls to health triage and advice lines.

Some of those measures could help, although it might be difficult and risky to try to assess case severity over the telephone.

But most of the measures tackle the problem from the ambulance side, without addressing the fundamental problem of acute hospital bed shortages. 

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