Doctors to join rescue choppers

A DOCTOR would be permanently stationed at the Hunter Westpac Rescue Helicopter’s Broadmeadow base from 2014, under the recommendations of an independent review of the state’s aeromedical services.

The Ernst & Young report, which the state government is considering, has proposed sweeping changes to medical helicopter services, including reducing the number of service areas from five to two ‘‘super regions’’ of northern and southern NSW.

Tamworth would become a 24-hour base by 2015, and Wollongong’s helicopter operations would be absorbed into expanded Sydney services.

The report said population growth and an ageing population would increase demand on the fleet of 15 medical helicopters, run by various operators, by about 23per cent in the next decade.

‘‘If the current service configuration and coverage does not change, this increase in demand will see an average deterioration in primary mission [emergency] response times of around 11per cent in areas including Sydney, Orange, Wollongong, Newcastle and Tamworth,’’ the report said.

Differences in the way services were funded, managed, equipped and staffed needed to be eradicated to reduce inefficiencies and save about $6.7million a year, although they would still cost the government more due to demand.

The northern region would take in Lismore, Newcastle and Tamworth and have four helicopters, including one back-up at Broadmeadow. A doctor and paramedic crew should be permanently in place at Newcastle because current arrangements were inflexible, the report said.

Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service general manager Richard Jones welcomed the recommendations but said he would push for the government to support the addition of a doctor as part of medical teams sooner than 2014. At present, a Sydney-based helicopter attends if a doctor is needed, sparking safety concerns about delays.

‘‘We believe there’s a strong case for the change to be made as soon as possible,’’ Mr Jones said.

A NSW Ministry of Health spokeswoman said feedback was being sought until February to inform the government’s response.

The Hunter service’s contract was recently renewed until 2014.

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