‘Don’t need to be there’: 4 in 5 emergency patients could be treated elsewhere

Daily Telegraph, 21 February 2024

More than 80 per cent – or four out of five patients who went to hospital emergency departments across the state last year, could have been treated outside an ED.

Out of a record number of 3 million patients who presented to EDs in the 2022-23 financial year up to 2.5 million could have been treated in a different setting.

Additionally almost 1.5 million patients were admitted for less serious issues such as a sprained ankle, ear ache or rashes, new analysis of Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data has revealed.

The vast numbers of people presenting at EDs for non-urgent issues cost the taxpayer upwards of $900 million last year. On average a single ED presentation costs $350 per patient. In comparison, a single patient referred to virtual care costs less than one third of the price at $100.

As a result the Minns government is ramping up a campaign to convince people with non-urgent issues not to call triple-0 and instead call health hotline Healthdirect, where registered nurses give advice and organise GP or allied health appointments, virtual care or an ambulance if need be.

Last year, over 175,000 people were directed into health care services other than an ED via Healthdirect, which is more than half of the 315,000 people who used the service.

Nearly 126,000 people were referred to either a GP, virtual care or urgent care clinic as a result of the hotline. Nearly 40,000 people who would have attended an ED were given information over the phone to look after themselves at home. Additionally, nearly 10,000 patients were referred to pharmacies or allied health professionals.

The government hopes a decrease in the number of people going into EDs will cut down on hospital wait times and save the state hundreds of millions of dollars, with each Healthdirect call by comparison costing taxpayers an average of $30.

From July to September last year, nearly 40 per cent of ED patients did not receive treatment within the recommended time frame according to the latest Bureau of Health Information data.

NSW Health Minister Ryan Park said the Healthdirect number needed to be as second nature to people as triple-0.

“Anyone who has visited an ED recently will tell you that our hard working nurses are flat out – to be frank, there are some people who don’t need to be there,” he said.

“We owe it, not just to ourselves, but to our hard working health staff to call Healthdirect.”

Health Services Union boss Gerard Hayes agreed the large number of patients presenting to EDs with non-urgent issues was a serious problem in the sector.

“People who know there is another number to call where they will receive a high level of advice will do so,” he said.

“Often people will call emergency services for things like a rash that is not life threatening but uncomfortable, where a chemist would be better suited to provide treatment.”

Royal Prince Alfred Hospital ED nurse Joy Cabides hoped popularising the hotline would see patients getting more appropriate care outside the ED.

“It would help relieve workload for me and get patients what is often faster and more effective treatment,” she said.