An “unapologetically graphic” public health ad intended to reduce congestion in overcrowded South Australian hospitals has been criticised by a peak doctor body, which says it could put patients at risk.

But the video, which depicts a range of injury and illness scenarios, has been defended by the government, which says it is “trying something different” amid the ongoing system-wide internal emergency.

The advertisement encourages people to seek advice from the healthdirect hotline before visiting an emergency department.

The ad features the slogan, “Emergency? Or more of an umm … ergency?” and is accompanied by the dramatic opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony.

The ad draws a distinction between emergencies and so-called “umm…ergencies”.(Supplied: SA government)

President of the Australian Medical Association of South Australia (AMA SA), Dr John Williams, said it could send the wrong message.

“I have a lot of elderly patients who often hold off for days because they don’t want to be a bother to me or the hospital, so they often delay care,” Dr Williams said. 

“I don’t want them to get the wrong message, they need to come and get help when they’re concerned and when they need it.”

AMA SA president John Williams says patients should not be deterred from seeking assistance in an emergency.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Bernadette Clarke)

He also said he did not want patients to feel blamed for the state’s health crisis.

“It’s not the public’s fault that the system is overloaded,” he said.

Dr Williams said instead of asking people to ring a phone line, the federal and state governments should be investing in general practice.

“The overcrowding in our hospitals is caused by chronic illness and patients with long-term health problems,” he said.

“There’s a misconception that going to the GP delays care, but the opposite is true … we do about 90 per cent of the care for only about 7 per cent of the cost.”

He said additional funding would allow general practices to hire extra nurses and staff, and better manage their workload.

Chief industrial officer for South Australian Salaried Medical Officers Association (SASMOA) Bernadette Mulholland shared similar concerns.

“What we don’t want is people like the elderly watching these ads on the television who may be very sick and determine it’s in the best interests of our health system that they don’t attend,” she said.

She said medical staff had indicated that those coming to the emergency departments were the “sickest patients in the system” and “long gone” were the days where patients might present with minor problems.

She urged patients who required emergency care to seek medical attention and not be deterred.

South Australia’s Health Minister Chris Picton says the government is offering alternatives to emergency departments for health incidents.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Government stands by new campaign

The government has defended the “unapologetically graphic” ad, saying it is getting South Australians to think about whether or not their scenario is actually an emergency.

“Our hospitals are really busy and we know that some illnesses and injuries do not need a visit to the emergency department,” Health Minister Chris Picton said.

“That’s why we’re trying something different with this year’s demand management ad campaign to encourage people to really think if they actually need an ED.”

The government said virtual GPs via healthdirect, five Medicare Urgent Care Clinics at Elizabeth, Royal Park, Oaklands Park, Morphett Vale and Mount Gambier, and three 24/7 pharmacies at Norwood, Clovelly Park and Salisbury Plains were other options for medical emergencies that do not require hospital assistance.

“We’re giving people options in terms of making choices other than having to go to an emergency department,” Mr Picton said.

“Of course, our emergency departments will always be there for those who need them.”

An internal emergency was issued in May, with many staff sick with COVID, RSV and flu as well as high hospital demand.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

System in crisis

SA Health is in the midst of a system-wide internal emergency, with a code yellow imposed nearly four weeks ago, meaning all elective surgery was cancelled across the public hospital system.

SASMOA has submitted a report outlining work health and safety concerns and inadequate access to facilities after visiting the Royal Adelaide Hospital last month.

It cited an “overwhelming number of patients” in the hospital and “distressed” doctors and patients, with one mental health patient forced to wait 95 hours for a bed.

Mr Picton said while 90 per cent of the restrictions have now been lifted with country hospitals having returned to normal operations, the code yellow alert remained in Adelaide’s hospitals.

The government said the situation was moving in the right direction.

It said ambulance response times had improved, with 72 per cent of Priority 1 cases reached on time within eight minutes in May 2024, up from 54.9 per cent in May 2022.

The new ad campaign will run until January 2025.

Posted , updated