A leading Perth emergency physician has raised concerns over the state of Western Australia’s hospital system and its ability to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19.
- Dr Peter Allely says the state’s health system is running at a dangerous level
- Ambulances spent more than 5,000 hours waiting to unload patients at emergency departments last month
- The nurses’ union and the AMA have called for more beds and more staff
Peter Allely, the WA faculty chair for the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, said “code yellows” – or internal disasters – were being called frequently across the state.
“To be honest, most departments are running at almost disaster level, at least several times a week,” Dr Allely told 7.30.
“Everyone’s feeling exhausted and burnt out. We haven’t had a COVID outbreak in WA, and it kind of frightens me to think how our staff would cope if we did.”
Dr Allely said meticulous and detailed plans had been made in each hospital to cope with potential outbreaks, but a question remained about the surge capacity to deal with a spike in patient numbers.
“It’s beds and staff essentially. So, most of us are running on the same staffing levels that we have been for several years,” he said.
WA Health told 7.30 a range of hospital activity and workforce strategies had been planned for and exercised to respond to any potential surge in hospitalisations as a result of COVID-19.
The department has a baseline of 111 ventilated beds, with capacity to surge to 254 ventilated beds.
Ambulance ramping reaches new record
In a new record, ambulances spent more than 5,000 hours waiting to unload patients at emergency departments last month, according to data published by St John WA.
The state government has blamed the crisis on a combination of factors, including what it says is an increase in the number of people presenting with mental health issues.
“We are under a lot of pressure, and every health jurisdiction in Australia is feeling that pressure as well,” the state’s Health Minister Roger Cook said.
“We’re looking at a number of ways that we can ease that pressure on our healthcare workers, firstly around a significant recruitment drive of nurses.”
Mr Cook has faced growing criticism about overcrowding in emergency rooms, particularly after the tragic death of Aishwarya Aswath earlier this year.
The seven-year-old died after waiting for two hours for emergency help at Perth Children’s Hospital (PCH) over the Easter long weekend.
Her death prompted outraged nursing and medical staff to rally outside PCH in May.
The issue of ambulance ramping isn’t unique to WA, with emergency rooms across the country experiencing similar issues.
However, Dr Allely said a lot of the issues relating to overcrowding pre-dated COVID. The nurses’ union and the AMA have also called for more beds and more staff.
WA Health told 7.30 system pressures were complex and there was an ongoing issue with hospitals caring for people who could be treated by a GP.
The department said plans had been made to deal with a potential outbreak of COVID-19, including reducing elective surgeries.
Hard border policy could be here to stay
As the pandemic drags on, Curtin University infectious diseases professor Archie Clements believes WA is likely to continue to use its isolation — and lengthy border closures — to its advantage.
“By and large, the economic impact in Western Australia hasn’t been as devastating as elsewhere,” he said.
Mr Cook denied WA’s tough approach on lockdowns and hard borders was a direct reflection of the state of the hospital system.
“We act on the basis of the health advice of the Chief Health Officer,” he said.
“The best way we can support our hospital system during a pandemic is to control these outbreaks so we don’t transfer that pressure onto the hospital systems themselves.”
Watch this story tonight on 7.30 on ABC TV and iview.