Thousands of patients swamped Wollongong Hospital's emergency department during winter, overwhelming medical staff and causing extensive delays in treatment, new figures show.
Fewer than half of all patients who arrived by ambulance were attended to within 30 minutes in the three months to September 30 - well below the target of 90 per cent.
The emergency department struggled to cope with more than 13,700 patients during the period, the figures show.
Only 41 per cent of emergency patients left within four hours, compared with the state benchmark of 69 per cent.
Hospital general manager Nicole Sheppard said yesterday that the figures, released by the Bureau of Health Statistics, confirmed what staff already knew: the winter months had led to an "unprecedented increase in demand that placed the whole system under stress".
"The results express what we were experiencing," she said.
In Wollongong, there was a 7 per cent increase in people attending the emergency department and an 11 per cent rise in the number of patients arriving by ambulance.
"That's quite a significant increase," Bureau of Health Information acting chief executive Kim Browne said.
"We generally see an increase of 3 per cent year on year.
"What we are seeing for Wollongong is many of the times are longer for patients waiting to start treatment and, in terms of leaving within four hours, 41 per cent in Wollongong compared with 43 per cent a year ago."
‘‘For similar hospitals across the state the average time for patients leaving in four hours was about 44 per cent.’’
Ms Sheppard said the ‘‘sheer volume’’ of presentations and the fact there was a large increase in category 2 – imminently life-threatening conditions – put the system under immense strain.
‘‘If you’ve got an increased number of those cases that will place additional demand,’’ she said.
At the height of the busy period, paramedics reported nights where crews were stuck at the emergency department for 11 hours.
They urged Health Minister Jillian Skinner to intervene to solve the bed block crisis.
But Ms Sheppard said one could not solve the problems in isolation.
‘‘It’s not a one-fix approach.
‘‘You can’t say put more staff, more beds, it’s not like that.
‘‘You need to review all of your models of care in the entire hospital and that includes in the community.’’
Ms Sheppard said a ‘‘whole of system approach’’ was necessary, taking into account the ageing population.
It was important to note the most recent figures for November gave a different perspective of the current situation involving patients arriving by ambulance.
Eighty-four per cent of patients were transferred from ambulance to hospital care within 30 minutes last month.
‘‘And there have been days in November where we are exceeding 90per cent and on occasions hitting 100per cent.’’
Ms Sheppard said emergency department doors were always open, but encouraged people to consider alternatives for minor ailments.