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Australians in hospital emergency departments waiting days for ward beds as health system overwhelmed | Health

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Australians face ballooning waits from 24 hours up to several days to be admitted to hospital wards, as a combination of health worker shortages, surging Covid and flu cases and the legacy of pandemic backlogs means many hospitals have run out of beds to admit new patients.

“Bed block” – when a hospital is so full there are no beds to admit new patients so emergency departments become clogged – has been widely reported by health workers across several states, with health industry sources telling Guardian Australia wait times are expected to remain high throughout coming months.

Last week, while various states were announcing free flu vaccine programs in an attempt to reduce further strain on their health systems, the New South Wales health secretary, Susan Pearce, urged anyone needing medical care to first rely on general practitioners and the healthdirect service.

She warned that demand for emergency services would become so high that those needing life-saving care may not receive it if those with non-urgent issues continued to call for ambulances and turn up to emergency departments.

Guardian Australia is aware of one case at Sydney’s St Vincent’s hospital where an elderly man with dementia and other chronic health conditions presented at the emergency department on Saturday with a urinary tract infection and delirium, and while he received thorough treatment, was only admitted to a bed on the ward 72 hours later.

The man’s son said that while beds in the emergency department were full, it was ultimately well-run, with patients spaced apart. However he said more mobile and younger patients were placed on beds in the corridors of the emergency department.

“Every [other] bed I saw was occupied by a very, very old person,” the son said.

Meanwhile, the Guardian was contacted by a woman in Queensland who claims her 83-year-old mother died after she was turned away from her local hospital late at night with a chest infection because there were no beds.

“It was not Covid but she was very unwell … Her neighbour found her alone and dead the next morning,” the woman, who asked not to be identified, said.

“My mum could have been saved – how many more are there like her? How many of us who have been through this need to tell our stories to back up what the medical staff are saying about the bed block crisis?”

In Victoria, ambulances have reportedly been banked up outside Melbourne emergency rooms, with patients in waiting areas requiring IV drips but not having space to be admitted.

Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning.

The Guardian has previously reported how in Sydney a patient with a suspected heart attack who also had Covid was told by a 000 operator to call an Uber to get to the hospital, only to be told by hospital staff when they arrived to wait outside in the rain for a bed.

Michael Whaites, the acting assistant general secretary of the NSW branch of the Nurses and Midwives’ Association, said “members are telling us it is the worst it has ever been even with the three Covid peaks”.

“There’s increased demand for beds, but also increased acuity of patients, so people aren’t moving out as quickly as they normally would, and there’s also less staff to care for them, so it’s taking longer for them to be ready to be released from hospital.”

“We’re hearing patients waiting for 24 hours to be admitted to a bed in a hospital,” he said, adding this should normally be no more than four hours.

Whaites said there are many factors behind the spiralling demand for hospital services, including ongoing Covid transmission.

“We’re still seeing more than a thousand people a day admitted to hospitals due to Covid, and somehow as a society we’ve normalised that figure and expect our existing hospitals and staffing to cope with that as well as everything else,” he said. “There’s just an assumption we can have thousands more patients in hospital each day and that the system will cope.”

Whaites said while intensive care units are not as busy as during the Covid peaks, pressure points at hospitals are now in general wards and emergency departments.

“On top of everything, we’ve got an attempt to catch up on all of the elective surgery backlog that built up over Covid, plus we’re seeing about 2,000 staff a day on furlough across the state due to illness.

“We’re also seeing a lot of people with chronic illnesses, who put off treatment because they were scared of contracting Covid during the peaks, now becoming a bit crooker because of that neglect.”

Whaites said some Sydney hospitals “just don’t have any beds and don’t have the room for more beds”, and that at other smaller hospitals, while they may have spare beds, staff shortages mean patients cannot be admitted to them because there is no one to care for them.

“Bed block was a problem before Covid, but it’s exacerbated now. The cracks in the public health system we had before Covid have grown into massive caves.”

He said many health staff had left the industry in recent months due to poor working conditions and pay that became less tolerable during the pandemic, and criticised the state government’s distribution of resources and funding throughout the sector.

“There has been an underinvestment in the workforce,” he said.

Do you know more about hospital pressure? Contact [email protected]


Australians face ballooning waits from 24 hours up to several days to be admitted to hospital wards, as a combination of health worker shortages, surging Covid and flu cases and the legacy of pandemic backlogs means many hospitals have run out of beds to admit new patients.

“Bed block” – when a hospital is so full there are no beds to admit new patients so emergency departments become clogged – has been widely reported by health workers across several states, with health industry sources telling Guardian Australia wait times are expected to remain high throughout coming months.

Last week, while various states were announcing free flu vaccine programs in an attempt to reduce further strain on their health systems, the New South Wales health secretary, Susan Pearce, urged anyone needing medical care to first rely on general practitioners and the healthdirect service.

She warned that demand for emergency services would become so high that those needing life-saving care may not receive it if those with non-urgent issues continued to call for ambulances and turn up to emergency departments.

Guardian Australia is aware of one case at Sydney’s St Vincent’s hospital where an elderly man with dementia and other chronic health conditions presented at the emergency department on Saturday with a urinary tract infection and delirium, and while he received thorough treatment, was only admitted to a bed on the ward 72 hours later.

The man’s son said that while beds in the emergency department were full, it was ultimately well-run, with patients spaced apart. However he said more mobile and younger patients were placed on beds in the corridors of the emergency department.

“Every [other] bed I saw was occupied by a very, very old person,” the son said.

Meanwhile, the Guardian was contacted by a woman in Queensland who claims her 83-year-old mother died after she was turned away from her local hospital late at night with a chest infection because there were no beds.

“It was not Covid but she was very unwell … Her neighbour found her alone and dead the next morning,” the woman, who asked not to be identified, said.

“My mum could have been saved – how many more are there like her? How many of us who have been through this need to tell our stories to back up what the medical staff are saying about the bed block crisis?”

In Victoria, ambulances have reportedly been banked up outside Melbourne emergency rooms, with patients in waiting areas requiring IV drips but not having space to be admitted.

Sign up to receive the top stories from Guardian Australia every morning.

The Guardian has previously reported how in Sydney a patient with a suspected heart attack who also had Covid was told by a 000 operator to call an Uber to get to the hospital, only to be told by hospital staff when they arrived to wait outside in the rain for a bed.

Michael Whaites, the acting assistant general secretary of the NSW branch of the Nurses and Midwives’ Association, said “members are telling us it is the worst it has ever been even with the three Covid peaks”.

“There’s increased demand for beds, but also increased acuity of patients, so people aren’t moving out as quickly as they normally would, and there’s also less staff to care for them, so it’s taking longer for them to be ready to be released from hospital.”

“We’re hearing patients waiting for 24 hours to be admitted to a bed in a hospital,” he said, adding this should normally be no more than four hours.

Whaites said there are many factors behind the spiralling demand for hospital services, including ongoing Covid transmission.

“We’re still seeing more than a thousand people a day admitted to hospitals due to Covid, and somehow as a society we’ve normalised that figure and expect our existing hospitals and staffing to cope with that as well as everything else,” he said. “There’s just an assumption we can have thousands more patients in hospital each day and that the system will cope.”

Whaites said while intensive care units are not as busy as during the Covid peaks, pressure points at hospitals are now in general wards and emergency departments.

“On top of everything, we’ve got an attempt to catch up on all of the elective surgery backlog that built up over Covid, plus we’re seeing about 2,000 staff a day on furlough across the state due to illness.

“We’re also seeing a lot of people with chronic illnesses, who put off treatment because they were scared of contracting Covid during the peaks, now becoming a bit crooker because of that neglect.”

Whaites said some Sydney hospitals “just don’t have any beds and don’t have the room for more beds”, and that at other smaller hospitals, while they may have spare beds, staff shortages mean patients cannot be admitted to them because there is no one to care for them.

“Bed block was a problem before Covid, but it’s exacerbated now. The cracks in the public health system we had before Covid have grown into massive caves.”

He said many health staff had left the industry in recent months due to poor working conditions and pay that became less tolerable during the pandemic, and criticised the state government’s distribution of resources and funding throughout the sector.

“There has been an underinvestment in the workforce,” he said.

Do you know more about hospital pressure? Contact [email protected]

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