Healthcare staff have called for urgent action after new figures showed that one-third of patients with mental illness faced an eight-hour wait in emergency departments.
Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM) president Dr Simon Judkins said the issue was referred to as an access block, and needed to be addressed immediately.
"When this occurs, it has been shown repeatedly to result in poorer health outcomes," he said.
“On its own, access block is a disturbing phenomenon, and illustrates a problem with the whole hospital system.
“So when some of the most vulnerable people in our communities – patients with acute mental and behavioural conditions – become caught up in access block, it is time for action.
“Increasing mental health presentations to emergency departments means it is incumbent on all stakeholders – health jurisdictions, health networks, health system managers, hospital employers and executives, and governments – to address this issue and develop new policies to support shorter stays in the emergency department.”
Judkins said the college would lobby state and territory governments and federal bureaucrats on measures such as reporting access block for mental health presentations exceeding 12 hours.
“To minimise time spent in the emergency department, other measures might include alternative models of care, particularly after-hours mental health support models, and increasing mental health expertise in emergency departments,” Judkins said.
"All community members have the right to timely, high quality emergency medical care in a respectful environment. This includes mental health care.
“Long waits for mental health care in emergency departments are unacceptable and discriminatory and are likely to lead to serious deterioration in the wellbeing of patients.
“ACEM will use this study, backed up by ongoing research throughout the year, to advocate for a multidisciplinary approach to address the services and support available to patients presenting with mental health or behavioural needs, and improve patient outcomes.”
The study in question saw researchers take a snapshot of 65 Australian emergency departments in December last year.
Access block was worst in Western Australia, where it was experienced by 66.7 per cent of mental health patients.
Judkins said hospitals in rural and regional areas reported higher levels of access block than metropolitan hospitals, suggesting inequitable access to mental health services across the country.
In the past year, 62 per cent of emergency departments reported that patients had wait times of more than 24 hours, while 23 per cent said patients waited more than 72 hours.
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