SYDNEY emergency departments are being squeezed at both ends, with worsening delays in the time taken to transfer ambulance patients into hospital care and to find a ward bed to accommodate emergency cases who need an in-patient stay.
The figures, for the relatively less busy summer months of January to March, suggest emergency departments are straining more than ever to cope and are likely to suffer a much sharper deterioration during the current quarter and three months from July to September, when demand typically peaks as a result of flu and other infectious diseases.
Among the quarter of emergency patients who arrived by ambulance, only 66 per cent were handed over to emergency staff within half an hour, according to the new figures, released today by the Bureau of Health Information.
That compares with 71 per cent in the same quarter last year, and falls far short of a 90 per cent government target. Based on the trend during the last two years, the figure could fall below 60 per cent over the coming months.
The largest hospitals have been hardest hit. Westmead performed worst, with only 45 per cent of ambulance patients accepted by the emergency department within 30 minutes - down from 54 per cent last year. Liverpool, Nepean and Prince of Wales each accepted just half of patients within the 30 minutes. Only Royal North Shore improved significantly, increasing from 57 per cent to 67 per cent the proportion of ambulance patients it accepted within the half-hour benchmark despite a 10 per cent increase in overall emergency attendances.
Diane Watson, the bureau's chief executive, said the deterioration should be viewed in the context of an 8 per cent rise in the number of patients seeking emergency care over just two years - well ahead of population growth.
Even though the figures related to summer, the number of people attending emergency departments was higher than at the height of the 2009 swine flu epidemic, Dr Watson said.
Among the one in five patients who required admission, there was a fall to an average 64 per cent across NSW in the proportion transferred to a ward within eight hours - from 68 per cent in the same quarter of 2010 and against an 80 per cent target.
Gosford, Liverpool, Nepean, Royal Prince Alfred, St Vincent's and Wollongong hospitals all fell faster than the state average, to below 60 per cent. The decline at St Vincent's was steepest, from 72 per cent admitted within the desired time in the first quarter of 2010 to just 57 per cent this year.