The latest round of national hospital emergency service data has been criticised by medical groups, with claims the nation's hospitals were becoming more focused on performance targets than healing.
The National Health Performance Authority (NHPA) report found that in 2010-11 only 54 per cent of Australian major metropolitan hospital emergency department patients were dealt with inside a target period of four hours.
The federal government has attached relatively small amounts of health funding - $800,000 annually for the ACT - to the targets.
But Catholic Health Australia (CHA) said that it was unlikely that the four-hour mark would ever be met in many hospitals and that it hampered attempts at real health reform.
The Australian Medical Association (AMA) was more upbeat, but warned the figures should not be used to apportion blame for failing in health services.
CHA chief executive officer Martin Laverty said that governments had not paid enough attention to the causes of the strains on Australia's hospitals, and financial penalties would only make problems worse.
"In the short term it is resourcing that will enable emergency departments to treat people effectively," Mr Laverty said.
"A person can be moved from emergency to a hospital ward only if a hospital bed exists, if that bed is staffed and if that bed is fully operative.
"It will be detrimental to punish hard-working and highly skilled health professionals by taking resources away from those hospitals which have, for varying reasons often beyond the control of a hospital, failed to meet artificial targets on emergency waiting times."
The Canberra Hospital dealt with 54 per cent of ED patients within the four-hour target and Calvary Hospital had a 63 per cent success rate.
Best performer Royal Perth Hospital discharged or admitted 91 per cent of patients within four hours, while last-ranked Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane only dealt with 45 per cent of patients within the target time.
AMA president Steve Hambleton called for co-operation instead of blame in the wake of the report.
"It is time for co-operation, not blame," Dr Hambleton said.
"There are many reasons for the variance in performance across the states and territories, but a united focus on a small number of key priority areas will help lift hospital performance across the board.
"Whole-of-hospital reform is needed, not just emergency departments.
"Frontline doctors must be more involved in hospital decision-making.
"Overall hospital capacity must be increased and we need more hospital beds."