Australian public hospitals unsafe, say doctors

By Michael Perry

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s public hospitals are unsafe, overcrowded and underfunded, resulting in 1,500 unnecessary deaths a year, a national doctors group said on Wednesday in a report titled “Public Hospitals Flatlining.”

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) report said not one public hospital was operating at a safe international occupancy level and the hospital network risked “systematic breakdown.”

The AMA called on the national government to inject A$3 billion (US$1.9 billion) into public hospital funding, warning that hospitals will not cope with the nation’s aging population.

Cuts in Australian health funding have resulted in hospital bed capacity slashed by 67 percent in the past 20 years and there was now a national shortfall of 3,750 beds, said the report.

“Emergency departments are over full. Corridors are lined with patients on trolleys because beds are simply not available,” said AMA President Dr Rosanna Capolingua.

“One report showed three in four patients in emergency departments who needed to be admitted waited more than eight hours. Of patients needing urgent treatment one third had to wait more than half an hour,” said Capolingua.

“Enough is enough. What does it take? Do we have to have more patients die?,” she said.

More than half of Australia’s 20 million population relies on public hospitals, which are jointly funded by the national and state governments.

The AMA said many public hospitals run at well over the safe occupancy level of 85 percent and some exceed 95 percent.

“An occupancy rate of more than 85 percent risks systematic breakdowns, extended periods of “code red’, and puts patient safety at risk of higher mortality and disability rates,” said the AMA report.

“Doctors have left the public hospital system because they feel compromised in their ability to deliver best care to patients.”

The AMA said the public hospital crisis would be worse, except for the high rate of private health insurance in Australia, which means that more than 50 percent of elective surgery occurs in private hospitals.

Australia’s biggest private hospital operator, Ramsay Health Care Ltd, which owns more than 60 hospitals, says that an aging population, increased life expectancy and demand for higher quality care will continue to underpin growth in 2009.

The AMA warned that public hospitals in their current state could not handle Australia’s aging population.

Australia’s population is not only aging, but also growing rapidly, fueled by a baby boom and the biggest migration boom in history. The current 20 million population is expected to reach between 30 to 42 million by 2056 and up to 62 million by 2101.  Continued…

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