16 Feb 2022

Patient left in emergency department for whole day before being moved to ward

7:29 pm on 16 February 2022

A Palmerston North woman says a relative in her 80s waited almost a day in the city hospital's overcrowded emergency department until she was moved to a ward.

File photo. Photo:

Tania Putu's relative, who did not want to be named, was rushed to Palmerston North Hospital with breathing difficulties and high blood pressure, after an ambulance was called about 11pm on Thursday, 3 February.

They arrived at the hospital's emergency department about midnight but were not moved to a ward until 11pm on 4 February.

There has long been concern about the department's capacity, and the MidCentral District Health Board (DHB) says the average waiting time over the past three months is about six hours and 22 minutes.

When they arrived at the hospital, Putu and her relative, 84, were initially ushered into a side room. The older woman was given a wheelchair in which to sit, as her symptoms persisted.

"We sat there for hours and hours. Full credit to the nurse behind the triage [area]. He came out and told us there was going to be quite a long wait because there was a lot going on in ED.

"He just apologised and said unfortunately that's how it is because there are so many people and not enough staff," Putu said.

"We knew we were hunkering down for a while. I was just concerned because my 84-year-old relative was having trouble breathing and her blood pressure was 220/110, which is really high, and it was really uncomfortable for her."

Putu went home for a rest about 6am, as another family member took over to watch their relative, who was given a bed in an emergency department walkway about 8am or 9am.

After a sleep, Putu returned.

But the long wait to move to a ward continued.

At one point it was suggested to Putu that she take her relative home, but she was too concerned about her health to do that.

"We were there all day and at 8pm she was still sitting in that walkway. The nurses had seen her and she'd had tests done and stuff, and they [the nurses] were lovely, if not pushed.

"Then about 11pm she finally got admitted to a ward."

Putu said the emergency department was busy the whole time she was there.

At one point she helped an elderly woman to the toilet after nobody was around to hear her calls for help from her cubicle.

Putu's relative has recovered and was well looked after by hospital staff.

But the family wonder how sustainable it is for staff to work in such conditions, and worry people don't get the level of care they expect and need.

"The other thing that concerns me about this is this was just a Thursday night, so what happens when we've got Omicron and we've got lots of people coming through."

Putu has made a complaint to the health board but is yet to receive a reply.

RNZ has previously reported concerns from hospital staffabout how the emergency department, built to deal with 17,000 people a year, was experiencing almost three times that number.

MidCentral reporting shows 47,904 people went through the ward in the year to October.

Since then 4018 people turned up in November, 3995 in December and 3877 in January.

MidCentral acute and elective specialist services operations executive Lyn Horgan said numbers for the same period last year were similar.

"The average wait time over the past three months is six hours and 22 minutes, and the average percentage of 'did not waits' is 14 percent," she said.

"It is pertinent to note that road trauma presentations have increased above the baseline of 33 to 58 in both November and December.

"Fifty-eight is the highest number in the past 18 months. This is one contributing factor to the wait times in the ED."

Horgan said the health board was making progress to improve waiting times, and was establishing a medical assessment planning unit and emergency department observation area to help manage the flow of people through the department.

New Zealand Resident Doctors' Association national secretary Dr Deborah Powell said the association's members were raising constant concerns about the Palmerston North Hospital emergency department.

"They are reporting patients waiting long times to be seen. They are understaffed, under-resourced and the department is just too small. They don't have enough beds for the number of patients they are seeing."

Normally, day-shift staff would clear the daily backlog of patients by their 11pm handover to the fewer-staffed night shift, but now on most days, there were 15 to 20 people waiting to be seen.

Such problems were happening in other parts of the country too, but Palmerston North was one of the worst, Powell said.

"The size of the ED, the ED itself, has not kept pace with the demand, nor have staffing levels of both resident doctors and nurses in that facility. It's just getting worse."

Resident doctors were reporting burnout and poor levels of job satisfaction.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs