As the demand from COVID-19 continues to put mounting pressure on Victoria's health system, Ambulance Victoria has doubled the capacity of its Triple-0 call triage service and will roll out a new service to free up ambulances so the sickest patients can get the critical care they require.
The latest performance data for the first quarter of 2021/22 reveals the entire health system is under significant pressure amid increasing demand.
The data shows paramedics were called to 80,459 life-threatening code 1 cases between July and September - a 17.2 per cent increase on the same period last year. Paramedics responded to 73.5 per cent of these cases within 15 minutes, with a state-wide average response time of 13 minutes and 39 seconds.
Ballarat has not been immune to these pressures, with the data revealing there was a 19.6 per cent increase in emergency code 1 cases during the three month period.
Despite the demands, paramedics were able to respond to 82.7 per cent of code 1 calls in the City of Ballarat within 15 minutes, slightly less than the 85.2 per cent of cases in the same time frame last year.
Yet the average response time for paramedics to reach code 1 patients and provide life-saving care was 11 minutes and 51 seconds.
AV's Grampians Regional Director, Chris James, said response times were fastest in the major population centre of Ballarat, with ambulances reaching 84.5 per cent of code 1 patients within 15 minutes, with an average response time of 11 minutes and 35 seconds.
"Here in [the] Grampians, we are dealing with an extraordinary workload, which is also being experienced by crews right across the state," Mr James said.
"We continue working closely with hospitals in the region to free up ambulances, getting them back out on the road as quickly as possible."
With 25 per cent of calls to Triple-0 between July and September not requiring an emergency ambulance, they were instead connected to paramedics and nurses who work in the Secondary Triage Service to be directed towards more appropriate care pathways.
"We've expanded our Secondary Triage Service with an additional 97 paramedics and nurses (57 FTE) - effectively doubling the size of the referral service for less-urgent Triple Zero calls," Mr James said.
"This vital service frees up ambulances for the sickest patients by connecting patients who do not need an emergency ambulance with alternative care."
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He said the service was managing as many as 1000 cases a day.
"That results in 500 or more cases every day that are being matched to services that better suit their needs while also avoiding emergency dispatch. This means more emergency ambulances available on the road during this incredibility challenging time."
To address demand and improve response times, new resources will soon be rolled out in the region, including a Medium Acuity Transport Service (MATS) based at Wendouree.
It is currently responding to about 60 cases a day.
"MATS, supported by 22 vehicles and 165 staff, provides care for Code 2 and 3 patients," Mr James explained. "MATS crews are dedicated to less-urgent calls to free up ambulances to respond to the most critical cases."
"Our MATS teams are making a real difference ensuring less-urgent calls get the high expertise and care that the community expects while having a positive impact on workload pressures being experienced by paramedics."
AV's chief executive, Professor Tony Walker, said the latest performance data was not surprising given the demand across the state and the country as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
"The entire healthcare system across Australia is under sustained pressure and our paramedics and first responders are experiencing this first-hand," Professor Walker said.
"Along with increasing numbers of COVID-19 positive patients, demand has quickly rebounded to levels prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the lockdowns."
The entire healthcare system across Australia is under sustained pressure and our paramedics and first responders are experiencing this first-hand,- Tony Walker
He explained that performance was also impacted by the time spent transferring patients into busy hospitals, wearing PPE to all cases and people who had delayed visiting their GP or health specialist during lockdowns and who were now finding themselves in a position requiring urgent care.
Professor Walker also welcomed the state government's $40 million investment that will boost our capacity to transport suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients and patients with less serious conditions.
"This funding package addresses the challenges we have today related to performance, to workload and demand with more paramedics, additional non-emergency patient transport vehicles and more support to improve patient flow at emergency departments," Professor Walker said.
"The boost to non-emergency transport services will ensure patients get the right care at the right time, and that emergency ambulances are available for those needing time critical care.
"We suspect we will be facing these challenges due to COVID-19 until at least the end of the year and early into 2022."
He asked every Victorian to refrain from calling Triple-0 unless it is an emergency. If urgent care is not required, advise can be sought calling Nurse-On-Call (1300 60 60 24) or seeing a GP or pharmacist early for advice or treatment.
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