TWO related reports in the past few days have shown that overloaded public hospitals in NSW are falling further and further short of expectations in a number of key areas of performance.

This week the NSW Bureau of Health Information revealed that the state’s sickest patients are waiting as long for emergency department treatment as they did at the height of the 2009 swine flu scare.

In the Hunter, only half the patients who present to emergency departments are being treated within the recommended times, with some waiting up to four times longer.

Equally troubling for Hunter people is the revelation that waiting times for urgent elective surgery are longer in the region than in the rest of the state, and the percentage of patients treated on time is lower than elsewhere in NSW.

Underscoring the problem statewide is the latest report from the state’s Auditor General, who has found an increase in the amount of time ambulance officers are being forced to wait to transfer patients into hospital care.

In 2010 ambulance officers wasted 77,200 hours waiting at emergency departments to hand over patients to hospital care. That was a big increase from 58,400 hours wasted the previous year.

Coupled with the related finding that only 66 per cent of patients were moved within eight hours from the emergency department to an inpatient bed (down on 73 per cent the year before and well below the 80 per cent target), the figures are symptomatic of the chronic “bed block” that plagues public hospitals.

Bed block is a simple problem that should have a simple solution.

When a hospital has too few beds available for use, its occupancy rate becomes excessive and there is no buffer to deal with emergencies.

Sick people in emergency rooms lie on stretchers waiting for patients in wards to be sent home to make room, forcing clinicians to make difficult decisions that can have far-reaching implications for care and recovery.

Full emergency rooms force ambulance officers to wait in queues with patients in their care, depriving the community of those vehicles and personnel in case of accidents or medical emergencies.

In effect, the government uses part of its ambulance fleet as a mobile hospital annexe. That’s a dangerous and foolhardy practice that can’t possibly produce good results.

Green light for Orica

TORN between the coal industry’s urgent demand for explosives and the Newcastle public’s concerns about safety, the government has given the green light to Orica to re-open its trouble-plagued Kooragang Island chemical plant.

Both Orica and the government insist that enough has been done to ensure the safety of nearby residents is not compromised by more of the mishaps and leaks that have kept Orica in the headlines for months.

Orica says it is committed to being “a responsible corporate neighbour”. The plant’s residential neighbours will be hoping that commitment is honoured.