8 April 2022

Emergency department spike strains hospital system already under COVID-pressure

| Lottie Twyford
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Canberra Hospital

Earlier this week, 311 people presented to Canberra Hospital Emergency Department – up from an average of 256 for this time of year. Photo: Region Media.

A random and inexplicable spike in presentations to the Territory’s emergency department is adding pressure to a hospital system that is already being stretched with COVID-related staff shortages, the Health Minister has confirmed.

According to Rachel Stephen-Smith, there are currently around 168 health care workers across both the public and private health systems who are in isolation or quarantine due to the virus.

“That number has been fluctuating between the 100 to 150/168 mark over the last few months,” she explained. But while this number is relatively small, more than 3000 health workers have been required to quarantine in recent months and it is leading to a “cumulative” impact.

“[That] has been really significant, and we absolutely recognise this is creating workload pressures for the other staff who are picking up extra shifts or working on wards where they are short-staffed, unfortunately,” she said.

On one occasion last week, Canberra Health Services had fully exhausted all of its staffing options, including both agency staff and its casual pool, and “they were still experiencing those workload pressures”.

Rachel Stephen-Smith

Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith. Photo: Region Media.

For those on the ground, the situation isn’t good.

One nurse who spoke to Region Media on the condition of anonymity last week described being “consistently short-staffed”, with most nurses having to work double shifts to cover nights. The nurse said she was getting messages every day, even on her day off, asking her to cover more shifts, having already worked seven days in a row.

She said she’s frustrated with having to work shifts when they are understaffed as it impacts her and her colleagues’ ability to provide quality patient care and leads to increased levels of burnout.

The reasons behind the current high demand on the Territory’s emergency department are unknown at this point, Ms Stephen-Smith said.

Earlier in the week, there had been 311 presentations – well above the average of 256 for this time of year.

“Our emergency department presentations are a mix of different acuity levels, but on Monday, we saw the resuscitation bays in use throughout the day – so people with really high and urgent care needs,” she said.

“But we also saw people presenting with less urgent care needs that maybe could have been taken care of at a general practitioner or one of our Walk-in centres.

“If you need the emergency department, they will be there to care for you,” she said.

Random spikes in ED presentations are not unusual in the ACT, although ED presentations were down in the latter half of 2021, likely driven by the August lockdown.

In November 2020, a record 330 people presented to Canberra Hospital, and ambulances had to be diverted to Calvary Hospital to help ease the pressure.

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Perhaps the ACT Government should insist that at least one private hospital or a consortia of private hospitals establish an emergency department instead of throwing their post-operative complications onto the public emergency department. It would also give people a choice – yes it does cost to use private emergency departments but ateadt you get timely admission. In other capital cities this choice is available.

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