Canberra's emergency departments are about to trial more lenient wait time targets, but authorities say this will ultimately lead to better outcomes for patients.
ACT Health has, for years, returned disappointing report cards when it comes to wait times for people who present to the territory's emergency departments.
Canberra's emergency department wait times were the worst in the country as at December last year.
In the most recent reported quarter, less than 57 per cent of people who reported to ACT emergency departments were in and out within four hours of them arriving.
The existing national benchmark states 90 per cent of people should be out of public emergency departments within that timeframe.
That target has been revised down under the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine's new proposed national benchmarks, which the ACT will test before they are considered on a national scale.
Under the new targets, the ACT will have to aim to get only 80 per cent of patients discharged from emergency departments within four hours, rather than 90 per cent.
The proportion of people who should be discharged within eight hours will be 95 per cent.
The targets will state that only 60 per cent of emergency department patients who have to be admitted to hospital should have to be admitted within the four hours.
They will state 90 per cent should be admitted within eight hours - double the time originally allowed for.
But Australasian College for Emergency Medicine president Dr John Bonning said the proposed targets were more realistic for hospital emergency departments.
He said a key benefit of the new targets was that they specified what proportion of patients who presented to emergency departments should be admitted to hospital within four hours.
That took some of the onus off emergency departments and put some onto hospital systems as a whole, he said. Hospitals would have to ensure they had enough resources and beds available if they wanted to reach the targets to admit people in a timely way.
"Emergency department staff across Australia are currently spending over one-third of their time looking after patients who are waiting for a hospital bed, delaying treatment and essential care needed for other patients," Dr Bonning said.
"Access block presents a danger not just to patients in the emergency department, but the entire hospital.
"Recent research has shown that a person presenting to an emergency department experiencing access block is 10 per cent more likely to die within the next seven days than a person who arrives at an emergency department which is not experiencing access block."
By directing hospitals' focus to admitting most patients within four hours, Dr Bonning said that would clear "bottlenecks" in the healthcare system that led to long waits in emergency departments.
So while the scope was indeed there for emergency staff to let people wait for longer, he said, the waits would theoretically decrease if more people were being admitted in a timely manner.
In the last reported quarter, the ACT's emergency departments once again performed badly when put up against wait time targets for different patient categories.
Category three patients are classified as "urgent", and national benchmarks state they should be seen at emergency departments within 30 minutes of them arriving.
At Canberra Hospital in the October to December 2020 quarter, the wait time for those urgent patients blew out to 75 minutes.
But Dr Bonning said those targets were never meant to be a "quality indicator".
"Access block for these admitted patients is where we need to focus our attention as it is indicative of system-wide problems that urgently need addressing across Australia, whereas looking at triage times focuses purely on the emergency department and is not the main issue we need to address," he said.
Dr Bonning said he believed data from the ACT's trial of the new targets would contribute to genuine improvements in the territory's health system.
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content: