Patients in New South Wales (NSW), Australia faced longer waits for ambulances and care in emergency departments as the state grappled with the COVID-19 Omicron variant, according to new data.
The health system was under stress as non-urgent elective surgery was suspended and the government relaxed most public health restrictions between January to March, the latest Bureau of Health Information (BHI) Quarterly Report has shown.
Some 734,704 people attended emergency departments during the period, down 2.8 per cent from the pre-pandemic period in 2019, but well above levels from five years ago.
The number of people admitted to hospital from ED fell 15.6 per cent from pre-pandemic levels, and those people generally waited longer.
One-quarter of people waited just four hours or less but one in 10 waited longer than 18 hours and 29 minutes in ED—a rise from 13 hours and 24 minutes before the pandemic.
Some 326,544 ambulance responses were made during the period, up 6.1 per cent from before the pandemic.
Demand for ambulances has been steadily increasing during the past five years, and a record number of highest priority cases were attended.
Ambulances took 8.8 minutes to arrive to the highest priority calls on average, the longest response time since 2010.
Only 60.2 per cent of responses for high priority calls were reached within the benchmark 10 minutes, the lowest result since 2010.
On average it took 15.7 minutes for an emergency ambulance to arrive, the longest wait-time result the BHI has reported.
The AMA says the report reveals all parts of the public hospital system are under strain and reform and sustained funding is needed to to avert the looming healthcare crisis.
"What is really disturbing is the long-term trend that we're seeing in terms of escalating numbers of patients needing treatment and the health system's diminishing ability to meet that demand," AMA NSW President Dr. Michael Bonning said.
"We're losing ground on almost every target," Bonning said.
Non-urgent elective surgery was suspended during this period to help ease demand on the system.
In March 2022, 100,980 people were waiting for elective surgery, close to the peak of 101,024 in mid-2020, with some 18,627 longer than recommended.
Demand for elective surgery did fall 27.8 percent from pre-pandemic levels.
One in 10 patients who underwent non-urgent surgery had been waiting longer than one year and 100 days.
Health secretary Susan Pearce said the period was one of the most challenging of the pandemic and health workers had been "remarkable."
"We have never seen a period like it before, from the huge volume of COVID-19 cases to the thousands of furloughed staff, and I want to thank the community for their understanding and patience as we faced the many challenges that came our way."
Emergency departments remain under significant pressure from COVID-19 cases and a surge in flu infections impacting staff numbers.
Those issues were being addressed by increasing bed capacity and deploying clinical staff to high-demand care areas.
Since the pause on elective surgeries was eased, the government has invested $485.5 million (US$334 million) to fast-track procedures, Pearce said.
The government will recruit 10,148 full-time staff to hospitals over four years as part of the upcoming NSW budget.
Labor's health spokesman Ryan Park said the report showed a healthcare system in crisis.
"The government's recent announcement of a boost to the workforce will take years before we see the benefits, in the meantime there are people who are left in pain because of their mismanagement," he said.