Hospitals were overwhelmed during last year’s lockdowns, with wait times for emergency departments and surgeries blowing out despite dramatically reduced patient volumes.
This year’s public hospital report card, released on Friday, showed that unless urgent action was taken, backsliding or barely improved performance would be as “good as it gets” for the hospital system, the Australian Medical Association president, Dr Omar Khorshid said.
“What’s remarkable about this year’s report card is it shows hospitals continued to struggle in 2020 when Australians stayed home, and we weren’t dealing with the highly contagious Delta variant or high Covid-19 hospitalisations,” he said.
“What we had was a once-in-a-generation event – a dramatic reduction in hospitalisation from accidents, injuries and illness.
“But … since the data … was collected, volumes have not only returned to normal, but grown, and we will continue to have Covid-19 on top of it. ‘Good as it gets’ is about to get much worse.”
Australians seeking emergency treatment within 30 minutes only had a one-in-three chance of being seen on time in the ACT, the report found, while patients in South Australia and Western Australia had a one-in-two chance, and New South Wales patients had a 75% chance.
“This report card is really … disappointing, because even in the best possible scenario, hospitals struggled, and we know that it’s so much worse now,” Khorshid told the ABC on Friday.
“What that says for the future is that we just don’t have the capacity to deliver good, quality healthcare when people need it. And that’s regardless of Covid.”
Just 69% of Australians hoping to leave the emergency department in four hours or sooner were treated within the timeframes, even though the number of patients dropped by 1.4% from 2019 to 2020.
And despite there being a hold on non-urgent elective surgeries, only 75% of category 2 patients were treated within the recommended timeframe.
“What this means is that 25% of people will wait longer than 90 days for surgeries, which in this category can include treatment for an unruptured brain aneurism, decompression of a spinal cord and treatment for ovarian cysts or unhealed fractures,” Khorshid said.
“If you’re in Tasmania, you’ve got more than a 63% chance you’ll be waiting longer than that – hard to believe for a world-class health system.”
Khorshid said “no single jurisdiction” improved its performance on wait times in the public health system.
“It was expected that performance would improve across the board. The fact that it only improved a little, in a few places … should really worry all Australians,” he said.
A key measure of a hospital’s capacity to cope – the number of beds available – has also been on a downward trend for the past 27 years, and hasn’t improved during the pandemic.
“Our hospital staff … do not have what they need to continue to care for Australians with non-Covid-19 conditions in a timely manner, and continue to tackle Covid-19 as well,” he said.
“Performance will be improved if we give hospitals the beds, the staff and the resources to do it … It’s time we … developed a national partnership to give our hospitals what they need to do their job.”