DOORSTOP INTERVIEW: Health worker shortage; flu vaccine rollout


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RYAN PARK: Well, what we have seen over the last 24 hours at Wollogong Hospital is absolutely shocking. And it highlights a health and hospital system in complete and utter crisis and chaos. Last night, unfortunately, not a one off event, we saw up to 11 ambulances stuck waiting to get patients off waiting some cases well over four hours before they could be back out on the road. This isn’t a one off. This is a continual lack of infrastructure, investment and service investment into this hospital. We know that because the independent data shows that 50 per cent of patients who come to this hospital wait over four hours before they’re treated. We know that because we know that 50 per cent of patients who make an emergency call, wait over 15 minutes before an ambulance arrives. We’ve got a crisis in our health care system right across NSW. And last night, it was highlighted here at Wollongong Hospital. I am not going to let off because after 11 years in government, it is time we see some real investment in additional paramedics and additional capacity in some of our busiest emergency departments in NSW. One of them which is here in Wollongong. Let’s be very clear. This is putting lives at risk. If people are calling Triple 0, and they’re waiting hours before they get attended to, it is only a matter of time before we have catastrophic outcomes and someone loses their life. This is not fair on paramedics. It is not fair on our health care workers, nurses and doctors in places like Wollongong emergency department behind me who have absolutely stretched. And it is taking a situation like we are seeing last night to highlight just how bad this situation is, day in and day out. We have got a budget coming up in the next month. I want to send a very clear message to this government today that we expect to see an investment in emergency departments like Wollongong Hospital to boost capacity. But we also expect to see an investment in additional frontline paramedics to start to take an ease off the pressure that these hard working emergency workers are experiencing every single day. One of the big concerns is this, we’ve got about 30 per cent of people who graduate from the paramedicine degree who don’t get a job. So there are trained professionals out there ready to go. We need them right now to try and get in ambulances to get in a uniform. Otherwise, as we head into winter, what is arguably the most difficult time for the health and hospital system, our system is going to buckle and it is going to further worsen. That is not fair on hard working paramedics. That’s not fair on hard working health workers. And it’s not fair on our hard working nurses. Now I’ll have a few comments before I hand over to Tess about a couple of other issues today.

Firstly, in relation to the proposal outlined by NSW Ambulance about moving people outside of emergency departments to GPs and pharmacists, I’m always happy to have a look at proposals to take pressure off our emergency departments. It’s one of the reasons why I pushed so hard to make sure Bulli Hospital was opened again, it’s one of the reasons why I supported the federal Labor’s commitment around a Medicare local or an urgent care centre here in the region. But let’s be clear, to get into a GP in the Illawarra is not easy. Time and time again, we are hearing reports of people making 12, 13, 14 phone calls before they can access a GP. So it’s not as simple as saying they’re going to pick up someone and take them to a general practitioner. That’s not how it works in the Illawarra. That’s not how it works in Sydney. That’s not how it works in this town, suburbs and cities right across NSW. So after 11 years, what we need to see from this government is in real investment in our health system, and investment in expanding our emergency departments and investment in expanding our health workers and investment in expanding our paramedics.

And finally in relation to the flu vaccine being free. I note last week that this government, as it always does, talks a big game and we were meant to have free flu vaccines. Queensland announced it. The next day, they could roll them out. That doesn’t look like it’s going to be the case here in NSW. And it looks like yet again, we have a situation with a government making big claims, but not backing that up with the implementation needed. I have been saying for weeks, health professionals have been saying for weeks, that there is a real lot of pressure coming down as a result of a very, very bad flu season. We know that here in the Illawarra, there has been a sharp increase in cases, it is knocking people down for a week at a time. It is leading to many people heading into our emergency departments and our local hospital. We need these free flu vaccines out right now. We cannot afford the delay. Because every single day we wait we are putting lives at risk. And we are putting more and more pressure on this hospital.

JOURNALIST: Ryan, just in terms of the bed block. We know what’s happening here. But how bad is it across the state because we also heard last night, there are no ambulances available on the Central Coast, no ambulances available in the Hunter. And maybe as few as four across the whole city.

PARK: We are hearing examples right across NSW, where communities don’t have an access to an ambulance because they are stuck in waiting bays in emergency departments. This issue of ramping is now reaching crisis levels. And with an upcoming budget, we urgently need the government to take note and to start to invest in our paramedics, to accelerate the rollout of new paramedics and to accelerate the builds around our emergency departments to free up capacity. We cannot have a situation where major centres like the Central Coast, the Illawarra, Sydney and Newcastle are left without an ambulance to patrol and service their community. That is not a health system that’s working. Tess?

TESS OXLEY, HSU DELEGATE & PARAMEDIC: Paramedics in Wollongong, we turn up to work to help our community. And instead we’re turning up to work now to have to apologise time and time again. We apologise that they had to wait for how long it took us to get to them. We apologise for how long they’re going to have to wait when we transport them to hospital. We apologise to their family members that the corridors are too narrow, and that there are too many stretches delayed for the family members to be able to wait with them. This isn’t the patient care that we turn up to work to provide. This isn’t – it takes a toll on us as much as it’s taking a toll on our patients. And we can’t keep on doing this day in day out. And at the moment, it just looks like things are not gonna get any better until someone can admit that there is a problem to make some change.


OXLEY: The staff numbers are low because there’s been no funding and no care of our health care in this state for over 10 years. And as we’ve faced an increased demand on it, we are now seeing that you can’t put more people in when places are at capacity. So as we face these things where we’re having increased flu season or COVID patients, we’re already at capacity. We’ve got no room in the system for any additional patients.

JOURNALIST: When you’re in, say in bed block and you’re hearing calls over the radio, and you can’t answer them, how does that feel?

OXLEY: It’s stressful. You have conversations amongst yourselves about can someone look after a patient for two of us and two of us can maybe team up and go out but we don’t have a stretcher. But maybe if it’s life threatening, is there something that we can do on scene to provide that initial help. We’re doing everything that we can, even though it’s outside of our hands to do the best job that we turn up to do every day, but we are absolutely hamstrung in doing it.

JOURNALIST: Is it just finding or is it other things to change as well?

OXLEY: I think it’s the focus on health that needs to change. That is funding, that is staffing, but that’s also making sure that the resources within the community match what the community needs. And at the moment that’s not been done and hasn’t been done for a very long time.

JOURNALIST: There’s also just finally there’s also talk of allowing people like yourself to work more overtime. So how much over time, are you already working in? Is there a capacity to do more?

OXLEY: Paramedics sign on for 12 hour shifts, and quite often now those shifts are going for 14 and 15 hours. And that’s not by choice. That’s because we might be delayed with a patient. And we don’t get to say sorry, but my family’s waiting at home for me, I’ve got to go, we stay and we look after our patient. To then ask us to do additional overtime on top of that, you’re going to lose the small part of the workforce, you’ve still got, you’re going to lose them.

JOURNALIST: Ryan, should you win the next election, and you’re, you’re the Minister for Health. Sounds like you’ve got a big job to fix.

PARK: We’ve got a massive job, I’ve said pretty well, every single time that the biggest challenge facing the next health minister is staffing. But let’s be very, very clear. This is the result of now 11 years in government, and it is going to take an enormous amount of effort. I know that Labor is already in those discussions with groups like the Health Services Union, the Nurses and Midwives Association, and local health officials about what we need to do. But make no mistake, make no mistake, after 11 years, we’ve got a situation where last night, virtually every single ambulance in a major city like the Illawarra was backed up at a major hospital. That is a situation that is at crisis point. And a situation that simply cannot wait any longer.

JOURNALIST: This idea of triaging emergency calls so that the less the less extreme calls if you like they can be sent off to GPs or don’t have to go into an emergency department. Are they already doing something like that in Victoria and is that something that you’d be looking to implement?

PARK: Well, without a doubt, we’re happy to look at any proposal to try and reduce the pressure off our emergency departments. And that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been a very strong advocate for places like Bulli because they act as a release valve for people to go with those minor issues, those minor ailments and conditions without clogging up a very, very busy major emergency department like here in the Illawarra. But simply saying that we can shift it to a GP is not accurate because we know that GPs, it is very, very difficult to get into a GP now. People often have to take wait weeks and weeks to try and access a GP. So we’ve got to be realistic as to how much work needs to be done.

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