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Hospitals crumble under the strain of record visits

NSW hospitals are struggling to handle record numbers of people needing help.

NSW hospitals are struggling to handle record numbers of people needing help. Photo: AAP

Ambulance callouts and emergency department visits have hit a record high in NSW as people face increasingly long waits or give up and leave the state’s strained public hospitals.

Some 810,201 people attended NSW emergency departments from the start of January to the end of March, an increase of more than 5 per cent on the same period in 2023.

It’s been labelled a “catastrophe waiting to happen” by the Australian Medical Association, which said only a sizeable investment could fix the system.

Attendances reached the highest of any quarter since NSW’s Bureau of Health Information began reporting in 2010.

The figures, revealed in a quarterly report released by the bureau on Wednesday, come amid a falling number of GPs providing care to patients in the state.

Just over two-thirds of those who went to emergency departments had their treatments start on time, but only 55.9 per cent of patients left within the targeted four-hour period – a record low.

One in 10 people spent nearly 11 hours in emergency departments, while more than 74,000 patients left either without treatment or with incomplete care – an increase of almost 17 per cent on a year earlier.

NSW Health Minister Ryan Park said public hospitals were under unprecedented pressure due to past underfunding, which remained a significant challenge.

“But we are undertaking the structural reforms to our health system to ensure our community receives the care they need and deserve – by delivering the single largest boost to our workforce in the history of our health system, and creating more pathways to treatment and care outside the hospital,” he said.

Additional urgent-care services have been rolled out since July in an attempt to keep people with less-serious conditions out of emergency departments.

Bureau of Health Information chief executive Diane Watson called for an expansion of the “hospital in the home” clinical model.

The program provided care for common conditions including infections, allowing patients to recover in familiar surroundings, but its use had varied considerably across the state, she said.

“The clear potential for the expansion of this model of care therefore presents an opportunity for patients, as well as NSW health services, to benefit from increased hospital bed capacity,” Watson said.

Public hospital admissions across NSW hit 481,335 patients in the quarter, up 2.7 per cent on the same period in 2023. Ambulance activity was up more than 10 per cent to a record 383,341 responses.

More than 17,000 of those callouts were the highest-priority cases, an increase of more than 57 per cent. The median response time of 8.3 minutes was within the 10-minute benchmark.

Elective surgeries fell more than 6 per cent to 51,149, but procedures were increasingly performed on time.

AMA NSW president Kathryn Austin said record demand must be matched with record investment.

“It is becoming increasingly impossible for the doctors and health workers of NSW to deliver the care that the citizens of this state deserve,” she said.

“It needs genuine cash injections.”

NSW Nurses and Midwives’ Association general secretary Shaye Candish said emergency departments were pushed to their limits, leaving both patients and workers with a bad experience.

“This reflects the sheer volume of patients presenting to public hospitals, coupled with the issue of bed block, and the challenging conditions our members work in, often while chronically understaffed,” she said.

The record-high emergency department attendance and ambulance activity come after the number of general practitioners in NSW fell by more than 500.

There were 9549 full-time equivalent GPs in NSW in the 2022-23 financial year, compared with 10,062 in 2021-22.

– AAP

Topics: NSW
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