Picture the scene: your family member is sick, really sick, so sick that you need to call an ambulance. A stressful situation. The ambulance arrives, and there’s just one paramedic, who promptly informs you that your relative is too unwell to be left unattended in the back of the vehicle. There’s at least a 90-minute wait for back-up and a list of other emergency jobs already in the system. If you want your family member to be taken to hospital as soon as possible, you’ll have to get behind the wheel of the ambulance and drive them there yourself.
This happened, last Thursday night, in Tasmania. Staff shortages combined with an unexpected surge in demand meant that just five paramedics were operating ambulances alone, according to the ABC, and a patient’s relative was forced to step up and drive the ambulance. That relative was an off-duty police officer, who drove the vehicle to Royal Hobart Hospital without the use of lights or sirens. In an email sent to staff, Ambulance Tasmania management described it as “a horrific night”.
There was a "breakdown in both procedures and communication", the email said, and the “distressing” night had “adverse impact on team members."
"We will review the events and identify what learnings should be made," it added.
Tim Jacobson, from the Health and Community Services Union, said "there was no other option at the time” but for the family member to drive the ambulance, as “the workload on that particular night was very severe."
"Obviously having a relative driving an ambulance is not optimal, and given the heightened circumstances and the distraction for people driving an emergency vehicle in those circumstances, it's just not an acceptable arrangement," Tim noted.
Labor health spokeswoman Sarah Lovell, meanwhile, described the situation as "frightening".
"It's not a vehicle that people would be accustomed to driving, these are vehicles that are very different to driving an ordinary car or van,” she said. "Not to mention, if you're a family member of someone that is so sick that they require an ambulance, to be driving with that level of stress and anxiety distracting you is just not safe for anyone."
Sarah suggested the extreme circumstances on Thursday night were symptomatic of a state health system that was "underfunded and clearly has enormous capacity issues"—a point that was echoed by Tim.
"On that night, not only was that paramedic operating as a single operator, but there were five others also operating as single officers," he said. "We are seeing ambulances more often now being operated by a single officer due to staffing issues and service demand… Workers' health and safety is being put at risk and the community's health and safety is being put at risk."
A spokesman for Ambulance Tasmania said "this was an exceptional circumstance, where a qualified emergency services employee assisted to ensure a patient experiencing a serious medical condition received the care they needed, and the matter is being appropriately reviewed."
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