Hunter doctors call for more hospital beds

SICK Hunter residents will continue to languish in hospital emergency departments, until the region receives a ‘‘serious injection’’ of beds, staff and funding, according to medical staff and peak industry bodies.

Doctors told the Newcastle Herald they needed dozens more hospital beds to tackle what many consider the region’s biggest problem – when patients have received emergency care and need to be moved on to a ward.

It comes a day after the Herald revealed that ambulance response times have blown out, due mainly to paramedics being forced to wait for hours in crowded hospital emergency departments.

There are also fears the region’s emergency departments, which continually fail to meet government waiting time targets, are chronically understaffed as they struggle to cope with surging patient numbers.

Across the Hunter New England Health (HNEH) network emergency department attendances jumped 23 patients a day from 369,009 in 2009-10 to 377,699 in 2010-11.

In the year to March this year, 68,330 patients attended the state’s busiest emergency department at John Hunter Hospital, a jump of 2511 people, almost seven a day compared with the previous year.

The health service refused to reveal how many full-time-equivalent emergency specialists and advanced trainee doctors it employs at John Hunter’s emergency department.

The Herald has been told it is considerably less – some estimates range up to 50per cent less – than other NSW emergency departments that are not as busy.

Greater Newcastle acute hospital network general manager Michael Symonds said rosters were managed to ‘‘ensure patients receive treatment as soon as possible’’ and it would be ‘‘misleading to give detailed figures’’ because staff numbers fluctuated.

The NSW opposition says 106 medical positions were advertised as vacant across HNEH last week.

Positions included surgeons, nurses, midwives, physiotherapists and psychiatrists.

Hunter medical staff who spoke to the Herald said it was not the advertised positions that were the problem, but rather the staff shortages being ignored.

‘‘People die waiting in overcrowded, overworked emergency departments, it’s as simple as that,’’ one doctor said.

‘‘There are times when the public should rightfully be afraid,’’ another said.

None of the staff agreed to be named because their work contracts restrict them from talking publicly without HNEH’s permission.

The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine estimates 1500 people die each year due to overcrowding in casualty.

The college’s NSW faculty chair, acting Professor Richard Paoloni, said there was nowhere near the amount of doctors needed for full service.

Dr Paoloni said as NSW’s busiest emergency department, John Hunter should employ the largest number of emergency specialists.

‘‘Having the right number of senior medical staff ensures good quality decisions are made,’’ he said.

‘‘They are far more confident about clinical judgments, so order far less tests, which is a cost saving and it ensures patient safety.’’

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