THE HERALD'S OPINION: Hunter rescue helicopter in crewing dispute

PRIMARY MISSION: A man is air-lifted to hospital on the Westpac rescue helicopter after an explosion at a workplace in Tomago in December 2015, Picture: Jonathan Carroll.
PRIMARY MISSION: A man is air-lifted to hospital on the Westpac rescue helicopter after an explosion at a workplace in Tomago in December 2015, Picture: Jonathan Carroll.

THE Hunter Westpac rescue helicopter has been part of this community’s social fabric since 1975.

In that time it has grown from a part-time voluntary summer beach patrol to become an integral part of the state’s health system, with an annual budget of more than $40 million. The bulk comes from contracts with the state government, but a solid 20 per cent is donated in various forms by a regional community thankful for its service.

Today, the service runs four choppers, with three in service at any one time: one at Belmont, one at Tamworth and one at Lismore.

Although it’s primarily known as a rescue service, an estimated 40 per cent of its flights are “secondary transfers” of health service patients from hospital to hospital.

The Hunter service is not the only rescue helicopter in the state that juggles the competing demands of primary rescues and secondary transfers.

But now, at the height of the busy summer holiday period, the service finds itself at the centre of a dispute over the way its inter-hospital flights are crewed, with the Health Services Union, representing helicopter paramedics, arguing that a peculiarity in the Hunter chopper’s operating model is putting lives at risk.

According to the union, the Hunter helicopter is the only one in the state that uses a dedicated doctor and nurse team for inter-hospital transfers. It says the need to switch crews between secondary and primary flights wastes valuable time when every second counts, and it wants the Belmont chopper to fall in with the rest of the state.

John Hunter Hospital, backed by the NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association, want the status quo to remain, arguing that the existing model has served a “unique” region well over the years.

From this distance, the Newcastle Herald is not in a position to advocate for a particular position, although as Port Stephens MP Kate Washington has noted, the policy as applied by Hunter New England Health is inconsistent, in that the Tamworth chopper flies with paramedics on its secondary transfers. On the other hand, it may be that the John Hunter’s preferred model does provide the highest standard of care. Either way, it’s a dispute that needs to be settled quickly.

The Hunter rescue helicopter is too valuable a public service to be battled over in a bureaucratic turf war. 

ISSUE: 38,685.

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