By Hamish Hastie
A woman who died inside Busselton Health Campus’ emergency department on Tuesday had been triaged but still not admitted, and was left to the care of the paramedics who had brought her in, Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson has confirmed.
An investigation has been launched into the death, the latest controversy in a system plagued by complaints of staffing shortages and record-breaking ambulance ramping hours for more than 18 months.
The woman was considered a ‘ramped’ patient at the time, meaning paramedics still had charge of her care because the hospital had not yet accepted her under its care.
Sanderson said that afternoon the hospital was busy because of school holidays but was fully staffed and the woman was “triaged accordingly” given she was mobile and went to the toilet while waiting.
She said she did not know who triaged the woman, but confirmed that her care had not been transferred to the hospital despite being seen by hospital staff an hour into her wait.
“She was in the emergency department for the entire time, that’s my understanding, so she was not in the back of an ambulance. She was transferred into the hospital, and we have processes in place in emergency departments to escalate care,” she said.
“But she was being monitored by hospital staff and by paramedics.
“Generally there are senior nurses who are available for triage and we have waiting room nurses as well. I don’t have the details of who was in the hospital at that time.”
The woman’s death has highlighted concerns about WA’s ambulance ramping and raised questions about why she was triaged as a lower risk patient.
“Ramping should not occur for patients who are triaged category one and two, which is life threatening, so that is a really important point to make,” Sanderson said.
Sanderson refused to divulge more until an investigation was completed, which could take up to six weeks.
“It’s important that we don’t draw any conclusions or cast aspersions until we’ve got all of the evidence in front of us and we can establish exactly what happened,” she said.
The investigation will examine hospital processes and the coroner will conduct an autopsy to determine cause of death.
WA Country Health Service chief executive Jeff Moffet said he felt deeply for the woman’s family.
“While we will never be able to replace their loss, it’s important we work with St John WA to fully investigate the situation,” he said.
“We intend to communicate openly and transparently with the family and have already spoken to them to express our sincere condolences.
“Staff at Busselton Health Campus are also feeling this deeply – they are absolutely dedicated to caring for their community and are devastated to have lost a patient. We will continue to support them throughout this process.”
Ramping is the term used to describe wait times for ambulances to hand over care of patients to hospitals, and has plagued the McGowan government since 2020.
Wait times have exploded since the pandemic, reaching a high of 6457 hours statewide in August 2021.
After a dip to 3673 hours in January, ramping rocketed back up to 5510 hours in March, the second-highest month on record.
When in opposition, Labor blasted the former Barnett government as ramping hours hit 1000.
Opposition health spokeswoman Libby Mettam accused the government of mismanaging and under-resourcing the state’s health system over the past five years and called on Premier Mark McGowan to take responsibility.
“Calling for an independent investigation into this tragedy is the minimum that should happen. We need to know why, despite repeated warnings and a worsening hospital crisis, the McGowan Government has still not acted to fix bed block and ambulance ramping,” she said.
“We need to pull the veil back on the secrecy around this government and its mismanagement of our health system.
“Ambulance ramping and bed block have been getting worse since 2018, well before COVID. The McGowan Government has repeatedly been warned of a potential tragedy due to hospital bed block and the record levels of ambulance ramping that have resulted, but it has chosen to ignore it.”
Sanderson said the record ramping levels were “as expected”.
“We have very high case numbers of COVID and we’re going into a winter season, so the ramping numbers that we have at the moment are as expected and planned for,” she said.