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Two patients died after ambulance call-out delays: union

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UPDATED | Two elderly patients who died in separate medical emergencies over the weekend experienced delays waiting for an ambulance to arrive at their house, according to the ambulance union.

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In a rare move, the SA Ambulance Employees Association decided to make the events public, detailing two triple-zero call-outs to Walkerville and Newton on Friday evening where ambulances arrived 22 and 35 minutes late respectively.

In the first case, paramedics were called out to Walkerville at 6pm to attend to an elderly patient reporting shortness of breath. The union says the patient was found dead when paramedics arrived on scene 38 minutes later – 22 minutes after an ambulance should have arrived.

Later that Friday night, paramedics received a callout for an elderly patient in Newton who was in a disoriented state and would later enter cardiac arrest.

The patient was deemed an urgent case with an ambulance supposed to arrive within 30 minutes, but one did not arrive for an hour and five minutes.

The patient was resuscitated and transported to the Royal Adelaide Hospital in a critical condition, but has now passed away according to the AEA.

AEA SA Secretary Phil Palmer said there were not enough ambulances to meet demand on Friday, with 10 other ‘lights and sirens’ cases already unattended when the Newton triple-zero call was made.

“The AEA and its members extend their deepest sympathies to the two families who have suffered such a significant loss on this Friday night,” Palmer said in a statement.

“We cannot say for sure that an earlier ambulance attendance would have saved these patients, but we do say that a timely ambulance response could have made a difference.

“The AEA would not normally share these stories with the media however we believe it is out duty to share this with the public of South Australia.

“The Government cannot say it was not warned.”

InDaily reported two weeks ago that the State Government received an “urgent” funding request in 2019 from the South Australian Ambulance Service, despite government grant revenue for the service declining in the 2019/20 financial year according to the 2021 Productivity Commission Report on Government Services.

The auditor general’s last financial report said the government has added 187 full time equivalent paramedics to the SAAS since 2018, and the Government says they are budgeting to add another 76 staff this year.

SAAS CEO David Place said the incidents occurred due to hospital congestion, a higher number of paramedics on sick leave, and the timing of crew shift changeovers.

“We extend our deepest condolences to the family of both patients,” Place said.

“On Friday we experienced an influx of high acuity cases which was combined with higher than normal sick leave and a large back-log of emergency cases driven by crew shift changeover.

“Additionally, we saw congestion across all metropolitan hospitals.

Place – who has previously said the service needs additional funding – this time pointed to the need for reforms.

“Friday’s events undoubtedly demonstrate the need for SAAS to undertake several common-sense reforms that will improve our ability to respond to all South Australians,” he said.

“We recognise the need for long-term solutions, including roster reform.

“It is, of course, challenging for both our paramedics and our communities when we are unable to reach our patients quickly but we always prioritise the very sickest patients first.

“All cases raised by the AEA have been reviewed by SAAS.”

The AEA’s revelations come as mediation continues between the Government and the union over a nearly four-year industrial dispute.

The two parties met on Friday and have been in proceedings since March 12, after the union two days earlier decided to take industrial action against the Government in an attempt to extract greater funding.

The Government says they are willing to put in additional resources if the union agrees to rostering reform and changes to meal break arrangements.

The union announced this morning it has ceased one element of its industrial action, with paramedics to resume billing patients even if they spend extended wait times ramped outside hospitals.

The cessation represents a backdown from previous threats the union has made to expand this non-billing action to cover all patients, which could cost the Government hundreds of thousands of dollars given ambulance transport fees accounted for 117.2 million dollars in revenue last financial year.

The AEA said it will review this cessation on Wednesday.

Treasurer Rob Lucas, who is also responsible for industrial relations, welcomed the halt on industrial action and reiterated the Government’s position on providing additional funding.

“The Government welcomes the decision by the ambulance union to cease industrial action while both parties engage in mediation in the SA Employment Tribunal,” Lucas said.

“As we have indicated publicly, the Government remains willing to provide further additional resources to the ambulance service so long as the union agrees to sensible industrial reforms, such as reducing 12-hour shifts to 8 and 10-hour shifts, and taking meal breaks at the nearest station rather than driving past 3 or 4 stations to return to a home station.”

The Government and the union will meet again for mediation on Wednesday.

Shadow Health Spokesperson Chris Picton said the current situation is “completely out of control”.

“This is extremely shocking, and yet another example of this crisis escalating and patients being the ones who are bearing the brunt,” Picton told InDaily.

“I pass on my condolences to those family members for their loved ones who have lost their lives on Friday.

“Clearly, these were cases where ambulances should have arrived much earlier, but due to the lack of staffing and the significant demand on our ambulances, that was unable to be delivered on this occasion.”

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