Emergency Queues


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South Australia's emergency departments are in a sick and sorry state.

Even before the onset of winter, the wait for medical attention can last for hours.

Jan McMahon from the Public Service Association says her members believe they are at crisis point, particularly at hospitals like Flinders Medical Centre.

A document from Flinders shows overcrowding was so high on Monday, staff had to take special measures, including clearing patients from Emergency and taking them to other wards to wait for a bed.

That's known as a code grey: one of the most serious levels of over-crowding, with up to 74 patients waiting for treatment.

If that's not bad enough, the situation only got worse yesterday, when the hospital declared its emergency department had reached the highest possible level of overcrowding: a code white. That means more than 75 people were waiting, and ambulances were turned away.

"What about families who are turned away? I mean that is really serious," says Jan.
"You can't allow people who are sick to wait the hours that they're waiting or to be turned away. That's just not fair in a civilised society."

The Public Service Association represents just about everyone working in hospitals but doctors and nurses.

They're also stressed to the limit.

"They often go home at nights worried that they haven't been able to complete their work, unable to sleep, because they are severely worried as to what they will front the next day," says Jan. "It's very difficult when you're under that extreme pressure. I mean, how do you tell somebody they have to wait exceptionally long hours?"

Nurses, too, are over-worked and over-stressed. Elizabeth Dabar from the Australian Nursing Federation says people are generally sicker than they used to be before turning up to Emergency.

"There is a deep effect on nurses and midwives in this state," she says. "It is unsustainable."

And all this is before the traditionally busy winter season has even begun.

"It is extremely serious. We know activity is increasing and it has been steadily increasing for a number of years," says Elizabeth.

Two weeks ago, it was doctors who were speaking out:

Former AMA chief Dr Peter Joseph says the workload's a lot heavier now, and young interns are struggling to cope.

"It's very bad for young doctors to be pressured´┐Ż the degree of pressure that's there at the moment is unconscionable."

Dr Joseph says some of his patients admitted to emergency departments have not been fully treated, and they've had to get specialist attention after being discharged.

Health Minister John Hill says it's all a symptom of the season.

"These things are bit unpredictable," he says. "The change of weather conditions; it's been rainy and wet and bit cold over the last week, and we know that when we have cold weather, the number of people who turn up to hospitals increases."

His department says there were no ambulance diversions yesterday, but the usual winter strategy of opening extra beds and employing extra staff has kicked in early.

"What we're seeing this year is no different to what we've seen any other year, except the scale of the issue," he says. "We just have to be a little patient, particularly during peak times over winter. We're doing everything in terms of our health care plan to make sure that we've got capacity in the system for the future."

Jan McMahon from the Public Service Association says her members are doing their best under very trying conditions. "We are talking about South Australian families who have members who are sick and can't access the medical attention that they need at the Flinders Medical Centre," she says. "It's a very serious position."