21 Feb 2022

'Zero privacy' for emergency department patients waiting in corridors due to health system capacity

5:56 am on 21 February 2022

Patients are spending as long as 36 hours in emergency departments - often waiting hours in corridors.

Counties Manukau Health says it has enacted special escalation plans, including cancelling elective surgery, to deal with a surge in patients visiting Middlemore Hospital's emergency department.

Photo: 123RF

Corridor waits were supposed to be abolished years ago but doctors say the problem is hitting crisis levels again because hospitals are so clogged.

Emergency physician Dr John Bonning said it must be terrible for patients, many of whom were very sick, elderly or had mental health problems.

"Zero privacy, people wandering past you the whole time, infections control issues ... nurses trying to provide care but they've got to provide care for all their patients coming in," he said.

Dr Bonning, who was the immediate past president of the College of Emergency Medicine, said the problem was the worst it had ever been.

He knew of many cases where patients had waited for 24 hours in emergency departments, often a large part of it in the corridor.

There has recently been a patient at Waikato Hospital who waited 36 hours, he said.

Last week RNZ reported on an 84-year-old patient in Palmerston North Hospital who waited a day to be moved to a ward.

But the problem was in many other hospitals, including Waitākere, Wellington, and Waikato, Dr Bonning said.

Often they had made building adjustments to fix the problem, but just a few months later it was back.

Emergency physician Dr Andrew Ewens, speaking in his role as vice president of senior doctors union the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, said doctors and nurses did not like seeing a patient having to wait in a corridor.

"There's no privacy and you think about patients' dignity and what it would be like sitting in an emergency department if you're not feeling well, sitting in a corridor ... we can all imagine what that would feel like," he said.

The problem was known as access block - when patients needed to be admitted but there was no space in a ward.

It was a sign that was not enough capacity in the health system and that needed to be sorted urgently, he said.

Both doctors said the nursing shortage was a major contributor and there were sometimes beds free in hospital wards but no nurses to care for the patients in them.

And they worried a surge of Omicron cases and winter illnesses would only make the problem worse.

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