ACT emergency departments disappoint again, as minister warns of worse to come

ACT Health has returned another disappointing report card on emergency department wait times, and the health minister has warned the next one will only be worse.

Wait times for patients who were classified as "urgent", or category three, blew out to 75 minutes at Canberra Hospital between October and December last year.

That's up from 44 minutes in the previous quarter, and 28 minutes in the quarter before that.

The findings come in ACT Health's latest quarterly performance report, which was published on Wednesday.

The national benchmark said urgent patients should be treated at emergency departments within 30 minutes.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith on Wednesday acknowledged wait times for urgent patients had long been a problem for the territory.

She said it was also a problem in other jurisdictions, partly because of how emergency departments were managed.

Canberra's emergency department wait times remained the worst in the country as at December last year.

"Category one is absolutely seen immediately upon arrival - that's a resuscitation category - [while] category two is very urgent and is seen very quickly within that 10 minutes, and we meet the benchmark in relation to category two on a regular basis," Ms Stephen-Smith said.

"Category three, four and five patients are largely seen in order of arrival.

"So, because category three is that 30-minute wait is the benchmark, that tends to get pushed out."

In the October to December 2020 quarter, the ACT missed emergency department wait time benchmarks in two of the five categories. Wait times increased on the last quarter in three of the categories, by between 42 and 52 per cent.

Median wait times for urgent patients at Calvary Public Hospital Bruce were 42 minutes, up from 31 in the previous quarter.

Ms Stephen-Smith said she was meeting with the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine on Wednesday afternoon to discuss new potential benchmarks for emergency departments.

She said there was lots of work going on at both Canberra Hospital and Calvary Hospital to improve flows from their emergency departments into the rest of their hospitals.

She hoped that work would be reflected positively in data collected during this year's April to June quarter, but she warned this year's January to March quarter would be a bad one for ACT Health.

"I do have to say, the quarter that we've just completed, I don't expect to see an improvement. In fact, I expect that these numbers will get worse from the previous quarter," Ms Stephen-Smith said.

"It has been extremely busy in our emergency departments and we've seen a lot of mental health presentations as well, which often take a lot of time to support people.

"We know that there has been bed lock in mental health as well, which is why we've invested in an entire new mental health ward in Canberra Hospital ... which will be coming online in the next few months."

The minister said her team was really focused on improving the number of people who were in and out of emergency departments within four hours.


In the October to December 2020 quarter, less than 57 per cent of people who presented to emergency departments in the ACT were out within four hours.

The minister said she was still set on increasing that number to 70 per cent.

"That is a difficulty thing to do in a busy, 24/7 environment ... that is now seeing an even bigger increase in demand than we had predicted," Ms Stephen-Smith said.

"It is going to be a challenge but the emergency department is very conscious of the fact that we do need to do some things differently."

The Canberra Hospital emergency department. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

The Canberra Hospital emergency department. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

The minister said the most important thing was for authorities to ensure that when people came to Canberra's emergency departments, they received safe and high quality care.

"That is what is happening at the moment," she said.

The minister said presentations to emergency departments in the October to December quarter were up 6 per cent on the same time period in 2019.

About 90 per cent of patients who were recently surveyed at Canberra and Calvary hospitals had positive things to say about their experiences.

Ms Stephen-Smith said the ACT wouldn't meet its target of having completed 16,000 elective surgeries in the 2020-21 financial year, but it would get close - more than 15,000.

She said that, as at June 30 last year, the ACT had about 1500 patients who were overdue for surgery and awaiting it. By March 29 this year, about 150 people remained on that list.

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