The emergency departments of hospitals are being overloaded with minor ailments.
The emergency departments of hospitals are being overloaded with minor ailments. Cathy Adams

The time wasters clogging Northern Rivers hospitals

IF YOU'VE ever found yourself at your local hospital's emergency department with an ear ache or minor sprain, you're not alone.

Over half of the patients who present at Northern NSW emergency departments are using state-of-the art emergency facilities for non-urgent medical problems, better suited to the expertise of the local GP.

And there is evidence to suggest they are going to hospitals for treatment because they can't afford to pay up-front charges at the GP.

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According to the Bureau of Health Information's latest quarterly report, 54% of presentations at Northern NSW hospitals were triage four or five category - semi-urgent or non-urgent presentations.

The non-urgent presentation figures jump to 63% for patients at Ballina District Hospital Emergency Department.

Since 2010, rates for non-urgent presentations have been on the increase.

For the October to December quarter in 2010, 10,979 patients presented as semi-urgent. This has gradually increased to 19,319 for the same quarter in 2015.

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Lead Clinical Adviser at North Coast Primary Health Network, Dan Ewald sees a clear correlation between the emergency department figures and the Commonwealth freeze on the indexation of Medicare rebates.

"There is more pressure for general practitioners to charge a bigger gap fee for those that aren't bulk-billed to compensate for the relative decline of income.

"Local practices are very mindful of not denying care in a rural setting and most bulk-bill without promoting themselves as such. So there has been a real squeeze on general practice.

"The freeze is a Commonwealth Government alternative to the mandatory co-payment which generated a public backlash. This is just another way to get more of the population paying," he said.

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"Because of the freeze on Medicare rebates the proportion of bulk-billing will tend to become less," Dr Ewald said.

Shadow Minister for Health Walt Secord drew a similar connection. "People are on tight incomes and that extra charge for a GP means that they have to resort to emergency departments and that affects everyone," he said.

Dr Ewald believed patients with non-urgent conditions should seek their local GP for help. "Hospital emergency departments are by necessity designed to deliver care for very sick emergency medicine and trauma.

"They are poorly designed to deliver care for long term conditions that aren't in acute crisis.

"You could expect on average better care at a GP rather than an emergency department because they have relevant training."

An after hours option

People with non-urgent injury or illness are encouraged to contact their GP. If they are in doubt about the seriousness of their problem, they are urged to contact healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to access free advice from a registered nurse. This is a 24/7 access line. Alternatively, people may wish to access the healthdirect website at Minor illness or injury is best treated by a GP or after hours Medical Centre.

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