WA short-changed on health

February 9, 2024 9:00 AM
Libby Mettam
WA Liberal Leader

It’s been four years since the death of Geraldton accountant Ashleigh Hunter at Royal Perth Hospital. 

Her death didn’t make as many headlines as that of seven-year-old Aishwarya Aswath, but the circumstances were equally tragic. 

The 26-year-old went into cardiac arrest and died while ramped in the emergency department waiting to be seen at the hospital in December 2019.

Despite arriving by ambulance, she was left in a corridor for about an hour and as her father Kim describes it, “left to roll around in pain and agony until she had a heart attack and died”. 

While her chances of survival were deemed slim given the rapid progression of her sepsis, the WA Coroner’s report handed down in December made it clear that overcrowding in the ED had contributed to a missed opportunity to identify the seriousness of her condition and escalate her care.

In short, she should have been seen sooner, given pain relief and every chance, no matter how slim, of survival. 

Her death came two years before Aishwarya died waiting to be seen at Perth Children’s Hospital emergency department. 

Both tragedies should have acted as a pivotal turning point for the WA Labor Government. 

In response to the Coroner’s report into Ms Hunter’s death, the Health Minister claimed “a lot has changed” since. 

But four years on, the latest Productivity Commission health data released last week, tells a different story.  

It shows Western Australian patients continue to experience some of the longest wait times in emergency departments in the country.

Only 48 per cent of patients are seen in the clinically recommended time, the worst of all jurisdictions in the country and well below the national average of 65 per cent. 

Of those, only one in three patients deemed urgent (category three) and half of those deemed semi-urgent (category four) were seen in the clinically recommended timeframes. 

Ambulance ramping remains sky high with last year’s annual total at 52,000 hours, more than double the 24,400 hours recorded in 2019.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that the report also showed that WA has the equal lowest available beds at 2.3 per 1,000 people and the least number of nurses per 1,000 people in the country. 

Since 2016, our full-time nursing and midwifery workforce has increased by about 2800 compared to Queensland which has employed an extra 5900 in the same period. 

We did however come in top of the class in something – with the highest number of clerical staff of all States. 

The Cook Labor Government will no doubt try to spin the figures with the usual rhetoric about ‘record’ investment. 

We certainly are spending a lot more per head than any other State.

WA’s average cost per presentation to EDs is $822, well above the national average of $692 and a 22 per cent increase since 2017-18.

We also have the highest recurrent expenditure per person of all States, spending an extra $500 above the national average, yet we have seven of the eight worst performing emergency departments in the country. 

It’s not enough to boast that we are spending more than every other state if that is not leading to better health outcomes, better bed capacity and more frontline health workers. 

It means the system is inefficient. 

It also begs the question of what the money is being spent on, if not nurses and beds? Is it clerical staff? 

It’s clear that despite record surpluses and promises of record investment, the health system remains in crisis with doctors also increasingly going to extraordinary lengths to raise the alarm.

A letter signed by more than 50 clinicians at St John of God Midland Hospital in January was clearly a cry for help.

It stated that the hospital had been at capacity for almost a month, with patients left out in corridors and ramped due to the lack of beds. 

The letter also reportedly stated: “We as the clinicians are desperate and are exhausted ... we are working in a ticking time bomb, another Aishwarya incident will happen,”

Staff were considering bunking two beds per ED bay to try and address the demand. 

One mother I met took her asthmatic two-year-old son to the hospital and while doctors said he should have stayed for observation, there weren’t enough beds, leaving her distressed about where to take him in future. 

The State Government has announced funding to buy an additional 60 private beds at the facility but they aren’t expected to come online until July 2026, at the earliest.

This is a major metropolitan hospital and certainly not the only one that is operating at peak capacity. Buying beds to be delivered in two and a half years’ time cannot be the only solution.  

Our frontline health workers are doing the best they can with what they have but can’t continue to operate with one arm tied behind their backs. 

This is a workforce that is exasperated and now feels like it’s only avenue to be heard and instigate action is through the media. 

These latest reports should be yet another wake-up call for the Cook Labor Government that has been consistent at the very least, in its mismanagement of our health system both under the former failed Health Minister – our unelected Premier Roger Cook - and the current one. 

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