OPINION: Rescue chopper needs doctors on board now

THE people of NSW have what is perhaps one of the world’s most efficient rotary aeromedical services.

This is despite it being not really one service but a number of very different ones that attain this high level of service through a common goal of seeking excellence.

This mix of government, private, and non-government organisations (such as ours) is facing new challenges and not everyone will agree on how best to achieve the goals the government is setting.

For example, our Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service will lobby to retain winching capability from its Tamworth-based helicopter.

We will argue strongly against the recommendation of a major review of the state’s aeromedical services that suggests this winching capability be taken away. 

We see this as a major component of our rescue activity. 

We will argue – equally strongly, I believe – that the recommendation for the introduction of doctors on our aircraft can’t, or shouldn’t, wait until next year.

We welcome the review and much of what it proposes. But we think there is a little too much emphasis on equipment and costs, and perhaps too little on people.

Unlike most other communities in NSW, ours contributes substantially to the cost of operating fully equipped aircraft throughout the Hunter, New England and North West. It has never been a question of costs for these communities but of having the best possible service at the ready.

While the review clearly shows that the contribution of communities statewide is about 10per cent, here in the Hunter, our contribution far exceeds the contract funding from NSW Health and NSW Ambulance.

Our communities have long understood the perils of distance and the need for the fastest-possible response time to incidents in remote places where winching to aircraft is imperative.

They also understand that rapid response in linking people in need with medical assistance is vital. 

Our miners recognised early that, as the mines moved further up the valley away from major hospitals, the value of the helicopter service increased.

So, too, do our communities in rural and coastal areas, where road transport to major trauma hospitals has its limitations. 

Any increase in the time to reach someone in need is simply not acceptable to our communities.

The government is keen to further reduce the time for people to have access to medical care. So, the tasking of available helicopters and their crews is important. Aircraft that carry doctors, as well as highly skilled pilots and crew, can overcome many of the tasking issues that now face NSW Ambulance and NSW Health.

It does not make sense to have aircraft fly from Sydney to the Hunter while ours sits at the base because a doctor is not available.

For this reason alone, the service supports the major thrust of the government’s review, conducted by Ernst & Young – particularly the provision of doctors on Hunter and New England-North West aircraft.

However, we would like to see doctors introduced earlier than proposed and we will submit this to the review.

Clearly, the government wants the people of NSW to have an even better aeromedical service, but they do not have to wait as long as some may suggest.

Our Hunter aircraft are ready and our bases equipped to accept doctors as well as paramedics. If funding can be found, there is no reason to wait another year.

The service is analysing each of the more than 30 major recommendations of the review. And expert pilots, crew, engineers and financial and administrative personnel will advise the general manager and board, who will finalise a submission next month.

Very early in its history, our service established an ethos of creating and maintaining the best possible service, for which no patient would ever have to pay.

This is what drives our generous sponsors and our communities to raise funds. 

It is this thinking that will dominate the service’s final submission.

Cliff Marsh is chairman of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service, which provides aeromedical coverage for the Hunter, Central Coast, Mid North Coast, New England and North West.

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