WHEN rescue helicopters from Sydney and Tamworth are called to emergencies in the Hunter while the region’s own choppers sit idle, it’s a sure sign that something is wrong.
And, as usual, it doesn’t take long to reach the standard Hunter conclusion that much of the problem boils down to a shortage of money.
Rescue helicopter services in Sydney, Orange and Wollongong have dedicated doctors and paramedics assigned to their bases. These teams are trained for both emergencies and hospital transfers.
The Hunter, however, is forced by lack of funding to rely on two NSW Ambulance Service intensive care paramedics for emergencies and a doctor and nurse supplied from John Hunter Hospital for hospital transfers.
The Hunter used to be able to operate two helicopters simultaneously, but had to stop because it was only funded to run one machine and because the NSW Ambulance Service couldn’t supply medical teams for both.
That’s bad enough, but it gets worse.
Inquiries by this newspaper have revealed that the Hunter’s rescue helicopter is often delayed in responding to emergencies because of the time it takes to get the appropriately trained doctors, nurses or paramedics to the chopper base.
The reasons for these delays may vary, but one familiar one is the unpleasant perennial of access block at the region’s hospitals.
If paramedics are stuck in the ambulance jam at the clogged emergency departments of packed hospitals that have no beds available, then they can’t go to the chopper base and sick or injured people must wait longer than they should for the helicopter to arrive.
Bed block, again
And again, the underlying reason for the Hunter’s bed-block problem is lack of funds to keep an adequate number of beds open at its hospitals.
It has been alleged that on several recent occasions the Hunter’s rescue helicopter has been forced to wait up to 29 minutes, almost double the recommended response time, for the relevant medical teams to become available.
In one instance a helicopter had to come from Wollongong to the aid of a man crushed under a horse at Central Mangrove because no Hunter medical team was available.
In another case, urgent pleas by a paramedic for a helicopter to attend a road accident at Nords Wharf went unanswered because the required personnel were unavailable.
It is, of course, impossible for any service to achieve perfection. There will always be legitimate – if regrettable – reasons why the most preferred outcome can’t be obtained in particular cases.
But it appears, on the face of it, that some of the evident problems affecting the efficiency of the Hunter’s rescue helicopter are preventable.
If this is another case where government departments are saving dollars while putting the lives of Hunter people at risk then it is, quite simply, a scandal.