Health sector 'completely congested' as emergency wait times blow out

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Regional hospital emergency departments are under intense strain and health officials are urging people to reserve calls to triple-0 or visits to hospitals for emergencies.  

Key points:

  • Emergency departments are reporting understaffing and an overreliance on triple-0 as key factors driving high emergency department demands
  • The Rural Doctors Association of Victoria wants more funding to fill the healthcare gap in isolated areas
  • Ambulance Victoria declared an emergency Code Orange on Tuesday

Bendigo Health has pleaded with residents for a second time in two weeks to only present to emergency when required.

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A Bendigo Health spokesperson said its emergency department was experiencing “record demand”.

“We are dealing with sicker patients, some of whom require acute care.

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“The pandemic continues to pose workforce issues, with a significant number of staff furloughed each day due to respiratory illness and caring responsibilities.”

Staff shortages plaguing the sector

Health sector 'completely congested' as emergency wait times blow out

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Dr Simon Judkins says the length of stay in emergency departments is blowing out.(Supplied: Australasian College for Emergency Medicine)

Dr Simon Judkins is a board member of the Australian Medical Department and works in both regional and metro emergency departments.

He said data showed the length of stay in emergency departments was blowing out.

“Twice as many patients in the last month stayed in emergency departments across the state for 24 hours (compared to) the same time last year.

Dr Judkins said there were issues with staffing across the state.

“Part of it is the fact we still have COVID that is still rampaging through the community.

“We've also seen a lot of very, very experienced staff move out of the acute healthcare system over the COVID period just because of stress and burnout, they're just exhausted.”

Swan Hill District Health chief executive Peter Abraham said the hospital was currently “bed-locked” and staff were “buggered”, often working 12-hour shifts to cover for colleagues missing through illness and personal reasons.

Health sector 'completely congested' as emergency wait times blow out

The Swan Hill hospital emergency department.(ABC Mildura-Swan Hill: Christopher Testa)

“We know that it may take two weeks to get in to see a GP,” he said.

“But our message is if it's a sniffle and you can see someone else, do it, because otherwise you'll be waiting in the ED for four hours.”

Triple-0 should be reserved for emergencies

Ambulance Victoria declared an emergency Code Orange on Tuesday night, with union secretary Danny Hill citing ramping and non-urgent calls to triple-0 as main factors.

“But the key to it is that there's such an over-reliance on triple-0 and on emergency departments.

“We really need to shift the thinking to moving away from that and moving towards what we call alternative pathways, other options of care.”

Health sector 'completely congested' as emergency wait times blow out

Danny Hill cites ramping and non-urgent calls to triple-zero as main factors affecting emergency departments.(ABC News: Bridget Rollason)

Mr Hill believed five or six ambulances were ramped in Bendigo in the past couple of days.

“What this often does is it draws on the resources of the town surrounding major regional centres, like Bendigo,” he said.

“You'll see areas like Inglewood or Rochester being left uncovered, because their resources end up being effectively sucked into Bendigo to make up the resource and resourcing shortfall in those bigger centres.

“The smaller country towns are actually the ones that suffer the most and have quite significant blowouts in their response times if there's a time-critical emergency there.”

Strain trickling into rural urgent care

Meanwhile, the president of the Rural Doctors Association of Victoria, Dr Rob Phair, said urgent care centres and clinics in rural areas across the state were “effectively working as emergency departments”.

Health sector 'completely congested' as emergency wait times blow out

Dr Rob Phair wants more funding to fill the healthcare gap in isolated areas.(Supplied)

In last week's state budget nearly $12 billion was committed for COVID-19 health support.

It included funds for PPE, paramedic recruitment, health infrastructure, and more.

But Dr Phair said more needed to be done to address the issue of a number of rural Victorian clinics having to work in an emergency role, to fill the healthcare gap in isolated areas.

“There's a whole range of rural workforce measures which we have flagged at a federal and state level.” Dr Phair said.

Dr Phair added, while commitments into hospital and clinic infrastructure is vital, governments need to find new ways to incentivise regional health work, especially at regional bulk-billing clinics.

“Who's actually going to want to work there? At GP-style bulk billing clinics?” he said.

“The bulk-billing rates are considered so low among GPs … that you'd be really struggling to find GP's to work in an after-hours bulk-billing clinic … it's just not attractive work.”

Additional reporting by Richard Crabtree, Fiona Parker and Debra Pearce

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