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Byron Shire
June 7, 2023

Ballina Hospital emergency department ‘like the third world’

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A woman lying on concrete outside Ballina Hospital on New Year's Day, when the hospital waiting room was full. Photo Maralyn Sweeney
A woman lying on concrete outside Ballina Hospital on New Year’s Day, when the hospital waiting room was full. Photo Maralyn Sweeney

Chris Dobney

Patient numbers at Ballina Hospital surged more than 50 per cent on New Year’s Day, with a full waiting room, one woman lying on the floor on a blanket vomiting into a bag and another lying on concrete outside in the 38-degree heat.

That was the scene that greeted Maralyn Sweeney at around midday, when she presented to the hospital with an infected eye.

She described it as being ‘like the third world.’

Ms Sweeney says she was told that she would have to wait up to six hours to see a doctor, and that she was given the prescription-only drug Panadeine Forte by a nurse to ‘make her wait more comfortable’.

Ms Sweeney said there were ‘probably 15 or 20 people waiting and the triage nurse told me there was only one doctor.’

She told Echonetdaily that she later had that information corroborated by a friend who works at the hospital, although Northern NSW Local Health District has since said in a statement that three doctors were rostered on at the time she presented to the hospital.

She said that a man who had bleeding stitches in the waiting room told her he had already been there for six hours without seeing a doctor.

Ms Sweeney also said she was told by the triage nurse that she ‘should have come in yesterday’ because there was ‘less of a wait’.

She added that the new blood pressure machine at the triage nurse’s station ‘kept beeping’ and the nurse apologised, saying ‘it’s never worked since we got it just before Christmas’.

She then asked the nurse if the machine would give a correct reading of her blood pressure, to which she said the nurse replied ‘who’d know?’.

Ms Sweeney eventually left the hospital without seeing a doctor after ringing the Doctors on Duty service. She said a doctor from the service came to her home within around three hours of calling.

Lying on concrete

But she told Echonetdaily that as she was leaving the hospital she noticed ‘a lady up the end of the waiting room [which was full], lying on a blanket that the nurse had given her with a vomit bag.

‘There were no seats for her to sit on, as more people had come in, and she was lying there vomiting into this bag on the polished cement floor in the waiting room,’ she said.

But there was worse to come.

‘I walked out at 2:30 and there was this lady lying there [outside the hospital entrance] on the left hand side just as you go out.

‘She was in a hospital gown, lying there on her stomach. She was shivering.

‘I said “are you OK?” and she said “yeah”.

‘She didn’t have any water – and it was probably about 38 degrees by then. So I gave her my bottle of water.’

Ms Sweeney asked the woman if she wanted her to get a nurse or a doctor, to which she replied ‘oh, they’re no help’ and put her head back down.

‘What were they doing letting her lie on the concrete in that sort of heat?

‘Honestly, it was like something out of the third world.

‘I left Ballina in the’80s to go and work in Brisbane and returned here in 2005 to care for my ageing mother.

‘The emergency department of the hospital is exactly the same now as it was then. Nothing’s changed in 30-something years,’ Ms Sweeney said.

Sack Skinner: Secord

The situation has prompted shadow health minister Walt Secord to renew his call for health minister Jillian Skinner to be sacked during the upcoming cabinet reshuffle.

He also said Ballina Hospital is being overlooked by the Baird government with promises of funding for other hospitals on the north coast, but very little for Ballina.

Mr Secord said that Ballina Hospital has been promised improvements by both the state and federal governments but they have not been forthcoming.

He said the federal government had promised almost $5 million towards the hospital.

‘This is the latest example of a health hospital in crisis. Unfortunately, the health and hospital system lurches from crisis to crisis.’

‘Sadly, Mrs Skinner is more concerned about keeping her own job than looking after desperate patients on the north coast,’ Mr Secord said.

He added that ‘patients have a right to turn up at Ballina Hospital and know they will see a doctor. They do not want to wait.

‘This is totally unacceptable: patients forced to lie on baking concrete because the emergency department is full.’

‘It is disgusting that they are told that they shouldn’t get sick on the holidays.’

‘No patient should be treated like this.’

‘Patients wait at every stage. They wait for an ambulance; they wait outside an emergency department; they wait at the emergency department for a bed and then they are discharged too early to make way for another patient needing the bed.’

Health district responds

Prompted for a response, a spokesperson for NNSW LHD told Echonetdaily, ‘at Ballina and District Hospital (BDH) on New Years’ Day there were three doctors on duty at the time this patient presented to the Emergency Department (ED).’

‘The NNSW LHD management is aware of a surge in patient numbers during holiday periods, and accordingly additional resources are allocated to address this predicted increase in presentations over the peak holiday period.

‘BDH received almost 50 per cent more patients on New Years’ Day compared to an average day, and all patients presenting to the ED were triaged according to the priority of treatment required.

‘Residents on the NSW north coast are fortunate to have access to alternate medical services such as Healthdirect Australia and Doctor on Duty (after-hours service) for non-life-threatening medical conditions which do not require immediate attention,’ the statement read.

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  1. The demands being placed on the North Coast’s hospitals generally is in part due to so many people seeking a ‘sea change’. It might be cheaper than any of our capital cities to live here but you wouldn’t want to bet your life on getting the appropriate health care in an emergency.

    • Ballina is cheaper than Sydney , similar to Canberra and Melbourne, and more expensive than other capitals = people are no moving there because it s cheap, Wherever they live older people will need medical treatment and hospitals. The demographic trends are quite clear, people should not be tying up housing in capital cites because that is the only place there is medical treatment available, and within reason and it is up to government to provide quality treatment where the people are. I also agree with Anthony – outpatients might not be a good way to provide GP services but there is often little alternative out of hours, especially if you are a visitor and don’t have a regular GP.

  2. “she presented to the hospital with an infected eye”.

    To the EMERGENCY department.

    And therefore contributed to the problem. When will people learn that the emergency department is NOT a walk-in medical bulk-billing service??!!

    • That’s a bit harsh. Hospital emergency departments are usually the only option for medical treatment after hours and public holidays.
      From my experience, Ballina hospital has a pretty dismal record for emergency waiting times, patient staph infections and inadequate aircondition in the wards. Not the fault of staff who have to work in these stressful conditions.

    • Totally agree you see people there with minor issues that could wait to see a GP tying up beds and time when its not an emergency. Some people use A&E as a free doctors service.

  3. Not surprisingly, our neighbour, Byron Bay, now has a better hospital than Ballina, despite a smaller population. Perhaps it’s all the Sydney people with connections who moved there. I’ve experienced the Ballina emergency department (for an emergency) and I don’t blame staff, I blame the health service and politicians who think only Sydney matters. Regional areas are always neglected. Apparently people don’t get sick here or need services. Go figure.


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