Off the road: English tourists Geoff and Lesley Richardson in Broome Hospital. Photo: Tony McDonough
The bucket list has a lot to answer for up north. Many grey nomads’ desire to tick off places on their bucket lists has contributed to a massive increase in hospitalisations of older travellers across northern Australia.
Many want to see Broome before they die. But the effort of getting there is often too much, says Dr Sue Phillips, the senior medical officer at Broome Health Campus in Western Australia. A week ago, three seriously ill elderly patients, who had come to Broome in pursuit of their bucket lists, were hospitalised and waiting to be evacuated by the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
“They work really hard to drive here in their caravan – ‘I’ve got to get to Broome, got to get to Broome, got to get to Broome!’ – and then they promptly decompensate and have their [heart attack] as they are coming down the Broome Highway," Dr Phillips said.
Emergency rooms in hospitals across the Savannah Way, the 3700 kilometre route that links Cairns to Broome, are filled with grey nomads who have headed north in campervans and caravans for the warm weather.
Broome's 60-bed hospital had an increase of 287 per cent more patients aged 70 to 79 from April to August than the rest of the year, and 233 per cent more people aged 60 to 69 years. South of Broome, Exmouth Hospital's emergency department sees 50 per cent more older travellers at this time of year. On the other side of the continent in Cairns, another bucket list destination, the emergency room also has to deal with growing numbers of grey nomads who have driven north for sun and adventure.
Bob Norman, the chairman of the Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Board, said many older tourists head to regional hospitals, such as Chillagoe 200 kilometres west of Cairns, which are hospitals in name only. Chillagoe has a full-time nurse, doctors fly in, and anyone with a serious medical condition is evacuated.
"When they arrive there, they get the shock of their lives," he said.
To reduce confusion, and the need for medical evacuations, the board planned to change the names of these facilities to reflect the level of service.
“Sometimes folks don't understand exactly how remote these places are. It is difficult, if you have lived most of your life in the city, to conceptualise how far apart townships are or how long you have to go on very lonely roads,” Mr Norman said.
British farmers Geoff and Lesley Richardson didn’t expect their 16,000km road trip in a campervan they called Sheila to end up being a tour of Australia’s rural hospitals. When 61-year-old Mrs Richardson contracted shingles, she tried to avoid doctors or hospitals.
Pain as bad as "giving birth every day for two weeks" forced her to seek help. She saw a doctor in Tennant Creek hospital, had to stop for medication at Katherine, and paused in Darwin for an eye check, when the shingles caused Bell's palsy in the left side of her face. When the shingles flared up again, she visited Broome Hospital in late July.
"I didn't come halfway round the world to get sick," Mrs Richardson said.
Dr Phillips said there were three groups of elderly tourists that visited the hospital: those with pre-existing lung and heart conditions, those with skin conditions such as cellulitis, and others who had accidents.
"They fall. They go climbing rocks in Tunnel Creek and Windjana Gorge, and they fall," she said. "Everyone is out and about, doing things they wouldn't normally be doing, like climbing rocks, and putting themselves in situations which they normally wouldn't be in."
Cruises also disgorged busloads of older passengers in Broome, she said, who headed straight to the hospital for treatment or prescriptions, often with unrealistic expectations of what a small hospital staffed by GPs could offer.
Dr Phillips said the town loved tourists, but the hospital didn't have the services or the specialists to treat an influx of elderly patients.
"It really stretches everything, the whole system," she said.
In many cases, patients needed to be evacuated by flying doctors, often taking one of the town's two planes out of service for a day or more.
WA Health chief health officer Dr Tarun Weeramanthri urged older travellers to protect their health by ensuring scripts were filled ahead of time and by visiting their GP for a thorough health check.
He said the increase in the number of older travellers seeking help in emergency departments had the potential to affect patient care.
"So it’s important that emergency departments are left for emergencies only,” he said.