Regional ambos at breaking point

RESOURCE CALL: The state's ambulance union has called for an immediate addition to staffing numbers and resources for the Limestone Coast, with just four paid staff providing coverage in the region.

By Raquel Mustillo

THE Ambulance Employees Association has warned the South Australian Ambulance Service (SAAS) was at breaking point with Limestone Coast crews covering distances of 20,000km2 to deal with increasing caseloads amid a lack of staff and resources.

Ambulance Employees Association Limestone Coast state councillor Andrew Shouksmith said systemic staffing problems had been exacerbated in recent years, with workloads increasing it the region by up to 7pc per annum, while resourcing levels remaining the same.

The service comprises of two ambulances in Mount Gambier, one in Naracoorte and one in Millicent, with career staff supported by volunteers in Robe, Lucindale, Padthaway and Kingston.

Mr Shouksmith said a Mount Gambier-based regional transfer vehicle, which was intended to undertake intra-hospital transfers – was effectively used as a third emergency car used to respond to call outs in Mount Gambier.

“We are seeing a shift in Mount Gambier where crews used to have four or five contacts during a shift, they are now having eight to 10 contacts,” he said.

“As the increase in urgent work goes up, the lower acuity work keeps on being pushed further and further behind.

“It really is a resourcing issue because resourcing has not kept up with demand.”

Mr Shouksmith said in instances where volunteer crews were not available in Lucindale, Padthaway or Kingston, Naracoorte paramedics were responsible for covering 20,000km2 with one vehicle.

“The same would be for Millicent, if there are no volunteer cars at the Coorong, they would be covering distances as far as Kingston,” he said.

“Plus with the lack of services at the Millicent Hospital, they are feeding just about everything to Mount Gambier.

“The minute they get to Mount Gambier, there’s an overwhelming load of cases there and then the Millicent vehicle then spends the next two hours or so working in Mount Gamier.

“If there’s an emergency in Millicent, then the vehicle has got to come from Mount Gambier or they’ll send a volunteer car from Robe or a single responder from Beachport.

“It’s band-aid stuff.”

Mr Shouksmith said an immediate addition of 20 full time staff was required to address the systemic staffing problem in the Limestone Coast and ensure the region was provided access to the best of care.

“We immediately need at least another emergency crew in Mount Gambier, plus another regional transfer team in Mount Gambier and that would probably alleviate a lot of the backload of urgent work,” he said.

“What that doesn’t address is the current situation we’ve got at Keith with not having full services there, which means everything gets dumped onto Bordertown and that puts increasing pressure on limited resources up there.

“I could really see another justification if not for a career emergency team at Bordertown or Keith, at least a general duties truck to do the transfers and also back up volunteers in the urgent things.”

Mr Shouksmith said the addition of any new staff in the region was unlikely, saying although the previous State Labor Government did not provide adequate funding for the ambulance service, the current government had “totally forgotten” about SAAS.

“I have been here for 20 years and I have watched it slowly deteriorate in terms of resourcing and ability to meet demand,” he said.

“The whole system at the moment is almost getting to the point where it’s broken”.

Member for MacKillop Nick McBride said he had fielded a number of concerns from constituents – particularly in Naracoorte – about the lack of ambulance services and delays in response times.

“My office has had a number of inquiries about the ambulance service from residents who are presenting at the Naracoorte Hospital who are having to be diverted to Mount Gambier due to the lack of doctors and having to wait in the emergency department because the ambulance is already in Mount Gambier,” he said.

“We have written to Health Minister Stephen Wade to ask how they are working through this and I have a meeting with him on Friday where I will raise this and other issues.”

Shadow Health Minister Chris Picton said the lack of resources and additional demand contribute to increased delays in response times, primarily affecting individuals who have been categorised as having a potential life-threatening condition.

“When you’ve got a region like the South East where there’s a significant population, it doesn’t take many incidents to be happening at the same time for all of those ambulance resources to get used up and therefore be delays for patients who need it,” he said.

“Some of the time, those delays will be particularly acute if someone has a fall or another incident where they are categorised as a category three – which was meant to have a response within 30 minutes.

“These are the people regularly waiting sometimes hours to get an ambulance… frankly, the paramedics just can’t get to everyone at the same time.”

Mr Picton said Labor will invest in additional ambulance resources if elected to government in 2022, with the party scheduled to released its detailed document in coming months.

“There does need to be additional paramedics put on,” he said.

“What the government has committed to so far isn’t going to be enough to make sure we are properly caring for people.”

A State Government spokesperson said the Limestone Coast was “well supported by five dedicated 24/7 paramedic and ambulance crews and 160 volunteers, but said the government were looking to increase the SAAS workforce in coming months.

The spokesperson said the government recognised the demand for ambulance services in some regional locations and acknowledge the enormous contribution that SAAS crews in the Limestone Coast make.

“SAAS operates on a dynamic deployment model, meaning ambulances are not ring-fenced to certain stations and that the closest ambulance is dispatched to those in need,” the spokesperson said.

“Ambulance crews within the Limestone Coast work collaboratively to provide ambulance coverage – this modelling is kept under constant review by SAAS to ensure all areas are adequately resourced.”