A new free medical service has opened in Corrimal this week, and operators say it could give thousands of people an alternative to waiting a long time for treatment at Wollongong Hospital emergency department.
Now part of Corrimal Medical and Dental Centre, the new Medicare Urgent Care Clinic (UCC) was promised by Labor at the 2022 federal election, and is designed to treat ailments, injuries and illnesses that need quick attention but are not bad enough for an ED visit.
According to Bureau of Health Information data there were about 29,500 semi-urgent or non-urgent presentations at Wollongong hospital in the latest year, which could have been treated in an urgent care setting.
The Corrimal service - which comprises a reception desk, treatment rooms and a dedicated medical staff inside the existing medical centre - is now open from 8am to 8pm every day.
Similar to the state health district-run Bulli Urgent Care, which is open Monday to Saturday at Bulli Hospital, the Corrimal service is one of 14 federally-funded Medicare clinics which will open across NSW.
Another state-funded urgent care centre, which will operate like the Corrimal one, is expected to open in Dapto in the coming months.
How urgent care centres works
According to operator For Health's Director of Urgent Care Simon Cross the Corrimal centre will be able to treat about four patients an hour, which could take up to 12,000 patients out of the ED each year.
Mr Cross said the average time between arrival and leaving at urgent care centres was between 45 to 90 minutes - significantly shorter than the latest median wait of four hours and 42 minutes at Wollongong ED.
What conditions can be treated at an urgent care centre:
- Illnesses with respiratory symptoms (e.g. cough, wheezing)
- Diarrhoea and vomiting
- Skin rashes, including cellulitis
- Suspected fractures, sprain and dislocations
- Lacerations/cuts which need stitches
- Removal of foregin objects from skin, eys, ears
- Conditions (e.g. ear infection) where antibiotics are urgently required
Mr Cross said the challenge was getting people to understand what conditions should be treated at at urgent care clinic, rather than at a GP or emergency department.
"It takes on average about two flu seasons to educate the community about what urgent care is," he said.
He said patients who turned up at Wollongong ED but fell into the semi-or-non-urgent categories may end up being advised that they could attend the Corrimal centre for faster care.
Mr Cross said the centre was a step down from an emergency room, but was also not designed to replace the GP, with all patients receiving a discharge summary to make sure their usual doctor could follow up.
"We will screen people to make sure they're appropriate and not just coming in to get a bulk-billed service," he said.
"If the patient doesn't meet the criteria, a discussion will be had about what their options will be. We have a no closed door policy - but it may be that they just can't get in to see a GP and, by a nurse actually phoning the GP and speaking to them, we find they can help the patient get their script filled or whatever it is."
"If a patient identifies that they don't have a regular GP and they need a follow-up, then being inside a healthcare centre we can put them in touch with our regular GPs, under the usual model of care."
Taking pressure of hospitals and GPs
Cunningham MP Alison Byrnes said improving access to health care had been a big focus for her since she was elected, and believed the Corrimal centre would relieve pressure on the ED and provide better pathways for people who couldn't get in to see their GP as quickly as needed.
"[It] will ensure local families can get bulk billed care when they need it, without an appointment," she said.
"When you have a deep cut, or when your child breaks their arm, you can head straight to the clinic rather than spend hours in the Wollongong hospital waiting room.
"The [centre] will help take pressure off Wollongong Hospital and its hard-working doctors and nurses, so that they can focus on higher-priority emergencies and life-saving care."
It's kids with infections, the Rice Bubbles in the ears, sports injuries, cuts that might need a stitch, and that sort of thing.- For Health's regional manager Alicia Boyle
For Health's regional manager Alicia Boyle said Corrimal patients had been keen to know exactly how they would be able to use the urgent care centre.
"We started operating yesterday, and so far people have been waiting to know 'what is it, why would I come, what does it look like and how is it different to my normal doctor?'," she said.
"If you know your doctor is not the right place - or you can't get in to see them quick enough, but also it's not urgent enough for a hospital, then this is where you should probably come.
"It's kids with infections, the Rice Bubbles in the ears, sports injuries, cuts that might need a stitch, and that sort of thing."
She said patients were able to book appointments at the clinic online, but only up to eight hours in advance to ensure they had "urgent" medical needs.
The urgent care centre is located at Corrimal Medical and Dental Centre, 46-50 Underwood Street and is free with a Medicare Card.