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Salvaging something good from those tragic calls that were never answered

Opinion

In the shambles that was once Queensland Health, we must ensure that when it comes to identifying the flaws of a struggling system that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, writes Madonna King

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In the milieu that follows a health stuff-up, it’s important to ensure those who should hold the blame then fix the problem.

And in the current spate of deaths, which look like they all could have been avoided, it is so crucial to insulate our paramedics: those hard-working, tired, too-often-abused and skilled ambos, who probably don’t have time to read any of this.

What we’ve seen unfold in Queensland over the past few weeks is unforgivable. A 67-year-old dad and granddad dying, after waiting three hours in the back of an ambulance van outside a hospital emergency centre. What is the impact of that single wait on other cases? How many other jobs could our paramedics have attended? More on that later.

A 51-year-old mother, who should be today enjoying that post year 12 glow with her son unshackled by the demands of school and looking forward to what is the real starting line in life. She’s dead, despite calling triple zero with chest pains, and not being heard.

Why didn’t paramedics arrive within the code-one designated time of 15 minutes? That’s what we have to answer here – but they didn’t stay away on purpose? So we have to know what we need to fix.

And now? Another death. This time, again, despite frantic calls by loved ones. And the ambulance didn’t show. Or at least, that’s the initial verdict. So something is wrong with the system, and it needs to be addressed before another family is left to grieve a tragedy that could be avoided.

Some of what we need to do is obvious.

How can we countenance ambulance vans parked nose to tail up hospital ramps for hours, when others are calling triple zero, desperate for their attention?

Paramedics can’t do anything there. It’s a systemic issue. And a funding issue. The problem is obvious. Short-staffed hospitals. Busy doctors. Too few beds.

With the no-show ambos, the specific reason needs to be targeted. Are there simply too few paramedics to deal with the problems? We know that is, at least in part true, because some of them are stuck on a car ramp outside a hospital!

What about if we freed up some positions too, and handed them to other experts. For example, what about if professional drivers were employed to safety transport paramedics to incidents? Or what about funded security positions, attached to the ambulance service, so paramedics did not have to wait for police to arrive, in specific circumstances?

We live in a complex time, with an ageing population and a surge in serious mental health conditions, and we need new solutions. Even the fact that ambulance vans now exhibit signs pleading with those inside not to attack or assault paramedics is beyond belief.

But that’s the environment they are now working in.

How could we better use AI in emergency call centres to flag prank calls? A morning spent in a call centre years ago, broke my heart. How does a call centre worker differentiate between a school holiday prank, and a child choking?

Some technology of recent years allows that, but much of it is still dependent on geography and phone number recognition and systems built for yesterday, not tomorrow.

But imagine if we could use AI to make our paramedic response fail-safe, by pooling resources and personnel across departments that allowed a faster response to calls.

Are some Queenslanders using the ambulance service out of loneliness or fear of the their condition? Yes. So let’s address that too, in a proactive, not reactive way. Perhaps non-paramedic staff could drop in once a month and visit them, as is done in other jurisdictions.

The pre-Christmas heartbreak we’ve seen involving these three cases – because those have been brought to pubic attention and others will not have been – need to be addressed in a more serious way than another roundtable meeting that leads to another and another.

Just imagine if your child was a paramedic, who was unable to get to someone in time. How would they be feeling?

And just imagine you were the person pleading for assistance, or parked 15 minutes from an emergency unit, but forbidden to enter.

This issue is a political one, and that is where the solution lies. More funding. More paramedics. Better technology. And even a sense of foreboding wouldn’t go astray. What if one of our decision-makers needed the services of a paramedic tomorrow?

What would their expectations be?

We, like most families, have had paramedic visits over a cardiac arrest, and anaphylaxis.

But it is one young paramedic, and her viewpoint, that will forever influence how I see that uniform.

She probably had just crept into her 20s, and my husband had just been rushed to hospital after a cardiac arrest, while running in the early evening.

He was one of the lucky ones. We all were, because he survived. But this young paramedic thanked me, close to midnight on May 27, 2020, and long after her scheduled shift ended.

Thanked me? Why? Because she said too often our paramedics are not able to save someone. They bust their guts to keep people alive. And when they do, they sleep better, wearing a smile.

This debate shouldn’t be about the performance of our paramedics, but the performance of those who should be supporting them.

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