‘Lives at risk’: rescue chopper hits turbulence over hospital rule

‘Lives at risk’: rescue chopper hits turbulence over hospital rule

CHOPPER BLOCK: The Belmont-based Westpac rescue helicopter could not fly to several emergencies this year because of a unique arrangement with John Hunter Hospital around who accompanies patients during a transfer.THE Hunter Westpac rescue helicopter has been unable to respond to emergencies in its own backyard because of a hospital policy that a union fears is putting lives on the line.

TheNewcastle Heraldcan reveal on Christmas Eve the Hunter service could not help a surfer who nearly drowned on a beach near Forster,despite being just five minutes from the scene in an empty helicopter.

It took paramedics 45 minutes to get to the remote location by four-wheel drive, but only after a back-up Sydney-based rescue helicopter struck birds and needed to abort.

It is not the first time the multimillion-dollar service has been unable to help despite being minutes away.

The Health Services Union revealed calls for the Belmont-based rescue chopper to assist in two emergencies on Lake Macquarie this year went unanswered as the helicopter was staffed with the wrong crew and fitted with the wrong equipment.

It stems back to a long-standing John Hunter Hospital policy that requires the hospital to keep its own medical team on the chopper for patient transfers between hospitals, leading to a dispute with paramedics.

The disagreement has now reached boiling point, with the HSU urging Hunter MPs to pressure the hospital into backing down.

The union wants the Hunter rescue service to be brought into line with the rest of the state to allow specialised paramedics to perform the patient transfers, known as secondary missions.

Currently, only critical care nurses are allowed to perform patient transfers on the Hunter rescue chopper.Theyare untrained for emergencies, known asprimary missions, which aero-paramedics respond to.

Hospital defends 30-year protocolParamedics had expected Hunter New England Health would change its policy after the Aeromedical Reform Plan was announced in 2013, but nothing eventuated.

The hospital maintains that critical care nurses, with a doctor,are the best medical team to transfer unwell patients in the Hunter.

But the union arguesthepolicy is “putting lives at risk” as it was leaving thechopper unequipped in times of emergency.

Read more: Westpac Rescue Helicopter unveils new base fleet in 2017

Defending the chopper protocol, John Hunter’scritical care servicesmanager Julie Taitsaid nurses were “best-equipped” to manage critically unwell patients in the Hunter, which had “unique” medical demands.

“In our intensive care, with the greatest respect, we don’t put paramedics to work,” Ms Tait said.

“We put our nursing staff who are trained that way.The paramedics are extremely skilled in what they do, but so too are the nurses in their intensive care setting.

“It’s about making sure the right level of nursing skill is there to cater for the patient.”

Ms Taitsaid the Hunter rescue chopper had operated under the same model for more than 30 years.

TO THE RESCUE: The Bankstown-based Toll rescue helicopter winches a man to safety from a capsized boat at Swansea after Westpac rescue couldn’t help.

“In many ways, these are the most unstable patients we have …from our perspective, it’s really an opportunity to make sure the appropriately trained nurses and doctors continue to do the work they’ve been doing,” she said.

Ms Tait added that Sydney-based rescue services were capable of helping.

“Sydney manage it quite well and they will facilitate what we need,” she said.

Survival down to ‘good luck’However, HSU secretary Gerard Hayes said every rescue helicopter in the state –except the Hunter’s –could be diverted mid-mission.

In March, the Bankstown-based Toll helicopter was dispatched to Swansea Heads to winch a man to safety from a capsized boat,despite the Westpac chopper being minutes away at the hospital.

The chopper would have needed to fly back to its Belmont base to swap crew and equipment. A refit can take up to half an hour.

“On this occasion, the victim survived but this was more due to good luck,” Mr Hayes told Hunter MPs, in a letter obtained by theHerald.

The situation repeated on October 7 when a woman was swept out to sea at Boat Harbour. The Westpac chopper was again on a patient transfer.

WARNING: Health Services Union secretary Gerard Hayes puts the survival of some patients down to ‘good luck’.

Mr Hayes said the Hunter retrieval service “denied” the communitytimely care.

“On these secondary helicopter missions, the Westpac rescue helicopter flew without a patient 159 times, yet could not take a critical care doctor to the scene of acar accident, a farming incident or rescue a person drowning,” he said.

“The only system of its kind, the Hunter Retrieval system denies the community access to timely critical care and rescue services, a service that the rest of the state expects.”

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