Emergency care crisis needs new ideas for national approach

18 June, 2009

The Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association (AHHA) has called for a national approach to addressing the current crisis situation within public hospital emergency departments.

The AHHA is the peak national body representing public hospitals, area health services, community health centres and public aged care providers.

"The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has released figures showing that public hospital emergency department (ED) visits are increasing at a rate faster than other hospital services. The AIHW reports that there were more than 7 million presentations to emergency departments in 2007-08, with an average annual increase of close to 5% since 2003-04," Prue Power, Executive Director, said.

"This reflects the experience of our members who report that hospital EDs are under significant pressure and struggling to meet the increasing community demand. This situation needs to be addressed to ensure that EDs are able to provide high quality care to all people in an emergency.

"The current threat of Swine Flu highlights the need for our hospital system to be prepared to deal with sudden and unexpected increases in demand. This cannot occur when EDs are already operating in a crisis situation and struggling daily meet the needs of current patients.

"AHHA recommends that the following strategies be adopted as a matter of urgency to take pressure off our hospital EDs:

- capacity building: both within hospitals, to upgrade ageing infrastructure, address workforce shortages and improve systems, and within the community, to prevent the current high number of preventable hospital admissions. This must include additional funding.

- E-health: a nationally consistent e-health system would enhance discharge planning and facilitate coordination of care and communication between hospitals and GP / community care teams. The proposed health 'smart card' is a good start but needs to be integrated with other e-health systems to be effective.

- innovations: building on successful innovative projects developed in hospitals around Australia to divert patients to more appropriate care setting and reduce pressure on EDs. For example, outreach programs which provide hospital-type care to people in the community and prevent a crisis situation from developing.

"The community relies on hospital EDs to provide them with high quality care in an emergency situation. We need a national approach to addressing the current crisis situation within EDs, involving a range of strategies as outlined above, to ensure that our public hospital system will be able to meet the community's expectations in the future," Power said.