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Stroke patient waits 40 minutes for ambulance: paramedics

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A patient suffering a stroke was forced to wait more than 40 minutes for an ambulance last night, while another person with chest pain waited an hour during “a critical lack of resources”, according to paramedics.

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The union says there were several life-threatening delays as the SA Ambulance Service declared an “OPSTAT White” event at 8.30pm, signalling “insufficient” resources and a risk to patient safety.

The Ambulance Employees Association chief this morning said the southern suburbs were left with “no ambulances” and just one single responder available between the city and Victor Harbor.

“This placed local communities at significant risk,” AEA state secretary Phil Palmer said.

“There were multiple lights and sirens emergency cases left waiting with no ambulance available to send.”

The union said at 7.30pm, a patient suffering a stroke at Gawler East called for an ambulance, which was eventually sent from Parafield but took more than 40 minutes to arrive.

The patient was taken to the Royal Adelaide Hospital for treatment.

Meanwhile, a Norwood patient with chest pain called triple zero but an ambulance didn’t arrive for more than an hour, the union said.

“Chest pain is a serious life-threatening emergency and triaged as a Priority 2 where the SA Ambulance Key Performance Indicator requires an ambulance arrival within 16 minutes,” Palmer said.

He said a North Brighton patient suffering a seizure waited more than seven hours for an ambulance to arrive – in a Priority 3 case that should be seen within 30 minutes.

In Black Forest, another “emergency lights and sirens Priority 2 case” waited for more than an hour, the union said.

Palmer said every metropolitan hospital emergency department was at or over capacity just after 9pm, with the Women’s and Children’s Hospital “over 219 per cent capacity”.

“Winter is the busiest time of year for our health system with increased respiratory illnesses – if the system is unable to cope on the first day of winter what will occur in the middle of winter?” Palmer said.

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas said “last night was yet another horror night for those South Australians who are relying on our ambulance service…”

“The reports last night that we had Priority 2 cases, which are life-threatening emergencies, not being responded to for up to an hour represents a real undermining of our hospital and emergency health system that leaves patients behind,” he said.

“When a South Australian calls triple zero looking for ambulance during their time of crisis – particularly where there is a life-threatening emergency – they expect it to roll up on time.”

In a statement, the SA Ambulance Service confirmed it experienced “a significant build-up of cases during paramedic shift changeover”.

“This was further impacted by increases in ambulance demand and transfer of care delays, resulting in a change in operational status (OPSTAT) to ‘white’ for the metropolitan area by 8:28pm,” a spokesperson said.

The spokesperson confirmed many of the details in the delayed cases highlighted by the union but said a SAAS clinician “remained in regular contact” with those patients experiencing lengthy waits.

“We recognise the increasing demand for ambulance services across South Australia and understand the distress to our patients and families, our staff, and our communities when an ambulance does not arrive as quickly as we or they would like,” the spokesperson said.

“SAAS remains patient-focused at all times and able to deliver high quality, safe patient care.”

The spokesperson said each call was prioritised “and the sickest patient seen first”.

“Any patient requiring urgent emergency care will be seen to by SAAS’s highly-skilled staff, regardless of the OPSTAT level,” the spokesperson said.

“We recognise the increasing demand for ambulance services and it is challenging for both our paramedics and our communities when isolated surges occur. We are working to boost our response capacity in areas of priority.

“As was experienced last night, ambulance availability is a concern during periods of high demand and often coincides with the time most paramedics are trying to finish their shift and attending only the very sickest patients.

“This is a consistent pattern and highlights the need for us to do things differently – including roster reform – to improve our response capacity.

“We are looking forward to making those changes, including welcoming 74 additional paramedics and reforming our roster patterns to spread start and finish times across the day and night, following an overwhelming vote by staff to accept an agreement put forward by the Government of SA.”

The details emerged as a stoush continued over paramedics “chalking” protest messages on ambulances.

The Ambulance Service has ordered the protest action to stop, following a deal between the Government and the union to hire an extra 74 paramedics.

But the union has vowed to continue with the messages to highlight members’ concerns.

Treasurer Rob Lucas said some ambulances had been “forced off the road and into panel beaters to repair thousands of dollars of significant damage – including dented bonnets – caused by staff climbing on top of the vehicles to deface them as part of union’s ‘chalking’ industrial action”.

Palmer accused the Government of trying to “silence our members”.

“Our members care deeply for their communities and will continue to highlight the critical safety risks to South Australians by chalking messages on ambulances,” he said.

“First it was meal breaks, then it was rosters and now it is chalking.

“The Marshall Government continues to blame ambos and their conditions instead of their failure to act.”

Lucas said “to have staff physically climbing on top of the vehicles to chalk is not only dangerous, but in some cases, I’m advised it’s caused significant damage such as a severely dented bonnet, which will cost more than $2,000 to repair”.

“Of particular concern is the distress these slogans are having on some people, including elderly and vulnerable patients, with SAAS advising that some say they would be too frightened to get into an ambulance with the word ‘unsafe’ scrawled across it,” Lucas said.

“It’s time for… Phil Palmer to advise his members to follow the lawful direction of their employer, SAAS, and cease chalking immediately.”

Opposition health spokesman Chris Picton said “it is appalling the Marshall Liberal Government is more focused on stopping our ambos from telling the public about the ramping crisis than actually fixing it”.

“It is chilling to think last night South Australians were calling triple zero with life-threatening emergencies and there were no ambulances available,” he said.

InDaily has asked SA Ambulance Service for a response.

A State Government spokesperson said “there are now more nurses, doctors, midwives and paramedics than ever before in the state’s history”.

“The State Government has also embarked on an unprecedented expansion of emergency services at every major suburban hospital, including transforming the Flinders Medical Centre Emergency Department into the biggest in the state,” the spokesperson said.

“We are getting on with hiring an additional 74 ambulance officers and are working on critical reform to ensure that rosters line up with patient demand.”

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