University students driving ambulances to meet demand as paramedics isolate: union

Emily CosenzaNCA NewsWire
Health Minister Stephen Wade said the state government had significantly boosted ambulance resources. NCA NewsWire/Brenton Edwards
Camera IconHealth Minister Stephen Wade said the state government had significantly boosted ambulance resources. NCA NewsWire/Brenton Edwards Credit: News Corp Australia

University paramedic students are being forced drive ambulances and more than a dozen vehicles have been unstaffed during a single shift as the Omicron outbreak forces workers into isolation, a union says.

A “significant number” of emergency service workers had either caught Covid-19 or were identified as close contacts during the most recent outbreak, resulting in up to 18 ambulances remaining unstaffed across metropolitan Adelaide on one shift alone.

Ambulance Employees Association secretary Leah Watkins said the SA Ambulance Service needed to employ third-year paramedic students to drive the vehicles and fill vacancies on the roster.

She said the students had a rapid induction process, which put more pressure on the paramedic working with them because they needed to attend every single case.

“Normally, they would share duties with their paramedic crew partner, with one taking the lead for one patient then the other taking the lead for the next patient,” Ms Watkins told NCA NewsWire.

“They work at this intensity for 12 to 14 hours in full PPE, without a break, one eye on their colleague monitoring for scene safety. It is physically and mentally draining.”

ROYAL ADELAIDE HOSPITAL STOCKS
Camera IconAEA secretary Leah Watkins said a significant number of paramedics were in isolation so third-year university students have been employed to drive ambulances. NCA NewsWire/Brenton Edwards Credit: News Corp Australia

Morale among paramedics is said to have hit “rock bottom” as members felt burnt out and were either breaking down, leaving their job altogether or going part time to try cope with the constant pressure.

According to Ms Watkins, response times to emergency cases were increasing to “dangerous levels” as priority one cases, or patients in cardiac arrest, were only being met 40 per cent of the time.

She said priority two cases – which included patients having a heart attack or anaphylactic reaction, been stabbed, shot or electrocuted, or involved in a car accident – were only achieved 32 per cent of the time.

The union called on the state government to acknowledge that SAAS was unable to meet its response time targets due to insufficient staff.

“We’d been at loggerheads with the government about what we saw as a clear lack of resources,” Ms Watkins said.

“The government has fought us every step of the way. When we have highlighted adverse patient experiences, they have explained it away with catchphrases like ‘it was just a surge’ and ‘we’ve flexed up’.”

Covid Update Presser
Camera IconHealth Minister Stephen Wade said the state government had significantly boosted ambulance resources. NCA NewsWire/Brenton Edwards Credit: News Corp Australia

But Health Minister Stephen Wade said the state government had “significantly” boosted ambulance resources, including doubling the paramedic intern intake in 2021 and 2022 and employing more triple-zero call takers.

He said SAAS put in place a range of measures to ensure the safety of South Australians wasn’t compromised as staff isolated, and its Covid-19 Resilience Plan — implemented before state borders opened last November — had always included using paramedicine students to support the state’s response to the virus.

“These investments are on top of the additional 74 FTE ambulance officers announced by the treasurer in this year’s state budget,” Mr Wade said.

“As a result of these investments, there are now more paramedics, ambulance officers and triple-zero call takers in South Australia than ever before.

“Frontline health staff requiring to be furloughed is not an issue that is exclusive to South Australia and it is something we are seeing nationally, including across ambulance services.”

SA Ambulance Service has also been contacted to comment.

Originally published as University students driving ambulances to meet demand as paramedics isolate: union

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