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Public urged to keep faith in triple zero

Both the head of South Australia’s ambulance service and its union representative have expressed concern that cases such as the death of a man who waited 10 hours for help may erode public confidence in calling triple zero.

Jan 11, 2024, updated Jan 11, 2024
Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

SA Ambulance Service chief executive Rob Elliott spoke to the media for a second time on Wednesday about the death of 54-year-old Hectorville man Eddie, who died on the night of December 27/28 after waiting more than 10 hours for an ambulance.

The man in a care facility was assessed as a priority five case requiring an ambulance within 60 minutes, but no help arrived due to significant ramping and pressure on the hospital system that night.

After his condition deteriorated his case was upgraded to priority one and an ambulance arrived within four minutes, but he died.

Eddie’s death was only revealed nine days later on January 4, while his grieving family spoke to media yesterday to demand Premier Peter Malinauskas fulfil his election promise to “fix the ramping crisis”.

Asked whether Eddie’s and other ramping delay cases influenced how people viewed the ambulance service and caused them to lose faith, Elliott said: “Yeah, I’m really concerned about that.”

“I want people to be 100 per cent confident in our ability to get to those really serious medical emergencies,” he said.

“So, yes, I am concerned about that. That’s why I’m standing here encouraging people in a medical emergency (to) continue to reach out to SA Ambulance Service.”

The Ambulance Employees Association agreed that the public should still have confidence in calling triple zero in an emergency despite Eddie’s long wait, but said it demonstrated ambulance response times are “still not good enough”.

“When it is busy the ambulance service will still prioritise the most highest acuity patients and patients are called back when there are delays,” AEA industrial officer Josh Karpowicz told InDaily.

“If there is a delay, informed decisions can be made about (a patient’s) care.

“The thing we don’t want to see is patients suffering life-threatening injuries and then not calling an ambulance, because response times have improved dramatically over the last 18 months.”

Karpowicz highlighted improvements to ambulance response times for priority one (requiring an ambulance within eight minutes) and priority two (16 minutes) cases.

The percentage of priority one calls met on time reached 76.2 per cent in December 2023 – up from around 50-60 per cent when Labor won the state election in March 2022.

The percentage of priority two callouts met on time also reached 64.5 per cent last month, up from around 33 per cent when Labor took office.

“There has been significant improvement,” he said.

“What the… tragic case of Eddie shows is there are still times where we’re not achieving that and that’s because 60 per cent is still not good enough.

“We need to be getting there a lot more on time, more often.

“But people should still have faith and the one thing we don’t want to see people doing is not calling triple zero. If people are concerned you should absolutely call triple zero for a life threatening injury.”

More review needed

Elliott said that the SA Ambulance Service also had processes to assess if the call was an emergency.

“We have excellent processes if your case does not turn out to be a medical emergency. We can guide you in the right direction, we can offer assistance, we can offer alternatives,” Elliott said.

“But it’s really important that in a medical emergency you receive that assistance.”

Elliott said it was a “very very rare occurrence” for a priority five case to wait 10 hours for an ambulance.

He said the incident reflected “some of the operational circumstances” on the night of December 27.

SA Ambulance Service executives Cathy Wright and Dr Amy Keir have been appointed to review Eddie’s case.

SA Ambulance Service CEO Rob Elliott. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

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The state government also announced yesterday that South Australia’s chief medical officer, Dr Michael Cusack, will assist the review.

There is currently no timeline for the review’s completion, but Elliott said he expected the reviewers to begin their critical analysis “very, very shortly”.

He said the review will welcome input from Eddie’s family.

Asked whether Eddie should have been prioritised higher given he was vulnerable, Elliott said: “That’s certainly one of the questions I would expect the review team to have a very very critical look at and come back with some recommendations.

“Particularly with some of those circumstances that surround the events of the night but also the patient’s medical background and history.”

Asked if there was a mistake made in how Eddie was triaged, Elliott said: “That’s really subject to the review.

“It is one of the things we will be looking at is the prioritisation and some of the ways we manage calls of that nature.

“What I really want to reassure people in South Australia is that we do prioritise the highest urgency calls and I really want people to have confidence in a medical emergency, please reach out to us, please dial triple zero as you should for those medical emergencies.”

The number of hours ambulance spent ramped outside hospitals emergency departments with patients reached a record high of 4285 hours in November – equivalent to 178 days.

Ramping declined 16 per cent in December to 3595 hours – equivalent to 149 days.

Health Minister Chris Picton said the state governments continues “to take every possible action” to improve the health system so cases like Eddie’s are prevented in future.

“We are so determined and we’ve made such a focus of this issue because we want to make sure that our ambulance service can respond to these cases,” he said.

“So every possible bed, every possible doctor and nurse that we can hire, every possible resource we will put into action to make sure that families get those services when they need them.”

Picton said he expected Eddie’s death would also be subject to a coronial investigation.

He and Premier Peter Malinauskas will this afternoon release the findings of a review into controversial claims that ambulance patients are given priority over those already waiting in emergency departments in order to lower ramping figures.

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