Tempting though it may be for some to blame the ACT's appalling emergency department waiting times on people who go to the ED rather than a drop-in clinic or their GP that just isn't the case.
Canberrans, despite the city's lower than average percentage of bulk billing general practices, are no more likely to turn up at an emergency department with a minor ailment than people anywhere else in the country.
The obvious reason the ACT has been outed - yet again - for having the worst ED waiting times in Australia is because the Barr government has not increased hospital treatment capacity in line with population growth.
The government has been talking about a new hospital for well over a decade. The Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, went to the people promising a new Canberra hospital - then to be known as SPIRE - just before the 2016 election. Work was due to have been well under way on the $500 million dollar plus project before the 2020 election and the hospital was supposed to be fully operational by mid-way through 2022.
That timeline has been comprehensively trashed and in the five years since then the ACT's population has mushroomed by 31,779 people from 395,785 in 2016 to 427,564. In 2010/2011 when early discussions about the need for a hospital upgrade were beginning in earnest, Canberra was home to 356,585 people; almost 70,000 less than today.
It took until 2018 for the ACT government to finally settle on the site for the new critical services building which will house a new emergency department with 147 treatment places; up by more than 100 per cent on the current 72.
The project wasn't approved until May 2019. It took until July 2019 for the procurement structure to be put into place.
Work finally started on the critical services building on November 1 this year. The project is now not expected to be completed until 2024 at the very earliest.
The ACT government's willingness to encourage rapid population growth and urban development while, at the same time, failing to develop the essential health services necessary to meet the needs of the additional people is a serious blot on its copy book. And, whether or not as some critics claim health has taken a back seat to what many consider to be the expensive distraction of light rail, Canberrans are entitled to feel let down.
The waiting time numbers themselves are damning. Canberra, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, has a median ED waiting time of 48 minutes compared to a national average of 18 minutes. This is up by four minutes on the previous year. In 2016, when SPIRE was first promised, the median wait time was 30 minutes. This is an increase of 60 per cent.
The Institute's report noted that while nationally 71 per cent of patients are seen on time only 48 per cent of Canberra's ED patients were seen on time in 2020/2021.
While the emergency department staff do a remarkable job given the hand that they have been dealt the capacity shortage has real consequences. There have been numerous instances of ambulance patients being bypassed from The Canberra Hospital to Calvary due to a lack of ED treatment places in recent years.
While the Barr government deserves to be commended for its excellent response to the pandemic which, it is true, would have diverted health staff and resources, it has let Canberrans down with the delays in the hospital project.
This is reflected in the continued escalation in ED waiting times.
These won't come down until the new facilities come on line.
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