South Australia’s Ambulance Employees Association (AEA) says a 54-year-old man died after waiting more than 10 hours for an ambulance in Adelaide’s east.

Key points:

  • The ambulance union said the man died on an evening when there was “significant” ramping
  • AEA industrial officer Josh Karpowicz said 17 crews were ramped at the Royal Adelaide Hospital that night
  • The union has provided the details to two senior clinicians undertaking a review

The union said the man in Hectorville died on December 27, when there was “significant” ramping across all Adelaide metropolitan hospitals. 

It said the man made a triple-0 call for abdominal pain and vomiting, and was initially triaged as an “Urgent Priority 5” case, requiring an ambulance to attend within an hour. 

“Ambulances were stuck at hospitals instead of being available for the community,” the AEA statement said.

“This led to long delays in ambulance responses, and by the time an ambulance arrived for this patient, he had passed away.”

AEA industrial officer Josh Karpowicz said 17 ambulance crews were ramped at the Royal Adelaide Hospital on the night of the man’s death. 

Josh Karpowicz says there was “significant” ramping across Adelaide hospitals on December 27.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

He said patients were also ramped at the Flinders Medical Centre on the same night for up to seven hours, despite there reportedly being capacity in the hospital.

“The night this occurred, there was over 50 cases pending across metropolitan Adelaide,” Mr Karpowicz said.

“That’s 50 cases that the ambulance service can’t get to, because ambulances are caught up on the ramp.

“For crews that are ramped at hospitals, it’s really hard to hear patients in the community waiting for ambulances when there’s no ambulances available, because all the crews are ramped at hospital.”

SA Ambulance launches a review

Mr Karpowicz said the union had provided details of the case to Professor Bill Griggs and Professor Keith McNeil.

They were tasked with undertaking a clinical review into allegations Adelaide emergency department staff were being forced to prioritise patients in ambulances over those in waiting rooms because of ramping.

“Patients are neglected in the community if ambulances are ramped and we need to see better processes, policies and procedures for ambulances to be offloaded rapidly into an ED when there is high community demand,” Mr Karpowicz said.

SA Ambulance chief executive Rob Elliott said his service would undertake a review to understand the circumstances of the case.

“On the night we were experiencing extremely high triple-0 demands and there was significant ramping as well which gave us a lot of operational pressure,” Mr Elliott said.

“We had to prioritise the highest priority patients that were our triple-0 calls at the time.

“Our hearts go out to the family and friends of the patients at this time.”

Mr Elliott said paramedics made three calls to the triple-0 caller over the 10 hours to check on his condition.

He said when the caller’s condition deteriorated, the case was updated to a Priority 1 and crews arrived within four minutes.

“When they rang us back to advise that the patient had deteriorated, the case was upgraded to Priority 1 and we arrived within four minutes.”

When they arrived the patient had already died.

SA Ambulance Service chief executive officer Rob Elliott.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Mr Karpowicz said that, on the night in question, patients in waiting rooms were being prioritised over those in ambulances.

“During the evening, we were told that at Flinders Medical Centre … patients in the waiting room were continually prioritised over ambulance patients, even though there was capacity within the hospital,” he said.

SA Health chief executive Robyn Lawrence responded to that claim, saying while it contradicted an earlier allegation by the SA Salaried Medical Officers Association, it would be investigated.

SA Health chief executive Robyn Lawrence said an ongoing review would be broadened in scope.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

“This clearly is completely opposite to the allegation we’ve had in the last couple of weeks from the medical staff — in that their claim is that ambulance patients are being prioritised over patients in the waiting room,” Dr Lawrence said.

“As a result of this, the reviewers Dr McNeil and Dr Griggs have been asked to expand their review to consider both these sets of allegations.

“Our expectation … is that patients are triaged at hospitals and that they are seen in order of priority.”

Ramping drops but union concerned by trend

SA Health today released the latest ramping statistics, showing that ambulances spent 3,595 hours ramped in December compared to November’s 4,285 hours.

SA Health said the December figure amounted to a 16 per cent decrease on November’s record high, “despite hospital presentations for the month going up 2.2 per cent”.

“Priority 1 ambulance response times for December were the best they have been in more than three years,” SA Health said.

It said “ambulance response times continue to improve” — an assertion emphatically rejected by the union.

While Mr Karpowicz said “significant investment” in resourcing had improved ambulance response times in recent years, the November figure was a “really concerning” statistic.

“If hours like that for ramping continue, we’re not going to see improvement in ambulance response times and we’re going to see more cases like this [of the 54-year-old],” he said.

Dr Lawrence said SA Health would “continue to do everything we possibly can” to “build new beds, hire more doctors and nurses and be more efficient”.

Posted , updated