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'You Feel Helpless': Record Hospital Emergency Admissions Stretching Nurses

Hospital emergency departments have never been so busy, and staff are left feeling helpless.

Health professionals have voiced concerns about aggressive patients, stretched resources, and people clogging the system by arriving at emergency departments with minor issues like headaches.

More than 750,000 patients visited emergency departments in New South Wales between January and March this year -- a 5.9 percent increase compared to the same time last year.

The figures, released by the Bureau of Health Information (BHI), show wait times have also gone up across the state.

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Around 71 percent of ED patients were treated within four hours of arriving at hospital, down 3.8 percent from 2018 -- while around 72 percent were treated within the clinically recommended time frames for the symptoms they presented with, a 4.3 percent decrease from last year.

“At NSW level, the timeliness of care provided to patients has declined from last year," Dr Diane Watson, BHI Chief Executive said.

"The results vary across hospitals -– with some experiencing bigger drops than we see at NSW level, while others had stable or improved performance despite increased activity."

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Patient aggression is a constant battle for staff, as they work to see patients as quick as possible, said Chelsea Anne, a nurse at a major Sydney hospital.

"There's a definite lack of understanding about how an ED works, not understanding that the sickest are seen first," she told 10 daily.

"We try not to take it [aggression from patients] to heart, we know where they're coming from, but we don't have the resources."

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The Australian Medical Association (AMA) has slammed the figures, calling the 40 percent increase in the number of patients in ED "unsustainable".

“Our hospitals were not built to cope with this extraordinary level of demand and that is showing in the increased time to treatment and patient waiting times," said AMA NSW President, Dr Kean-Seng Lim.

“The state’s doctors, nurses, and other health staff have been making a valiant effort to hold onto the improvements in on-time treatment they had made over the course of the last few years."

Anne agreed, saying an increase in population in the area of her hospital has put a strain on already-overloaded nurses.

"At my hospital in particular, housing has popped up everywhere and with that we are getting an influx of patients," she said.

"I know it's all about money, and there's just no budget for nurses.

"So if there's sick leave they don't always fill it so we work short all the time, which is very common in ED and we just have to close beds."

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NSW Ambulance resources have also been stretched in the beginning of the year, responding to more than 300,000 call outs, up 10.2 percent from last year.

“This was a very busy quarter for our ambulance services, with an additional 28,000 responses compared with the same quarter last year," Watson said.

"While we did see increases in response times for the broader emergency category, the median response time for life-threatening cases remained stable at seven and a half minutes."

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The number of patients using ambulances and EDs for non-emergencies is also putting a strain on resources, Anne said.

"They'll call an ambulance for a headache," she said.

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Anne recalled an instance earlier this year when no ambulances in the area were on the road, as they were all waiting at hospitals to unload their patients because there were no open beds available.

"They're hearing over the intercom about emergencies and they are stuck with non-urgent patients," she said.

"You just feel helpless."

A lack of understanding of ED services is partly to blame for the clogging of resources, the nurse claimed. She said the system could benefit from better public information campaigns urging people to only use ambulances or EDs for emergencies.

"Go to a GP for a non-emergency," Anne said.