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'Burnt out, drained' — Overwhelmed emergency department staff swamped by excessive demand

Frontline medical workers say a crisis in emergency departments is affecting the whole health system. 

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Emergency departments this week were at capacity. Source: 1 NEWS

1 NEWS has heard from numerous health professionals today after the earlier reports of EDs all around the country being at capacity; many feared losing their job if they spoke out publicly.

One man, a former ED nurse, was one willing to speak out - albeit under the guise of anonymity. 

He says the repercussions for staff who do speak out about the stress they are under not only puts their current jobs at risk, but also their futures. 

However, after six years at the coalface in the ED and feeling powerless to do right by his patients, he has had enough. 

He describes how the backlogs and lack of support in the wider system is having an impact not just on staff wellbeing, but the patients they treat. 

He's speaking out for them. 

"I had a gentleman who had a heart attack, who was misdiagnosed, he waited in the waiting room for six hours. Four months later, he had a severe heart attack and died in our emergency department," he says. 

"His family were distraught, obviously traumatised by this negative outcome that their father in this particular instance died because our system couldn't support it. 

"That takes an impact on you, as a clinician you feel responsible for that burden." 

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This nurse left after six years on the job, speaking of the fear, helplessness and fatigue they experienced. Source: 1 NEWS

He describes the sense of fear that often accompanied him when he went to work in the emergency department. 

"Sometimes there was that feeling of dread. The, 'Oh, no here we go again.' Sometimes there was a feeling of excitement that you could do something good for your patient. 

"But the majority of time it was a feeling of sadness and anger that you weren't able to provide everything you could." 

The backlog and pressures felt within the ED, a symptom of a wider issue across the health system, is now having an impact on the community outside of the hospital. 

St John Ambulance says they are coping with demand, but there have been instances where ambulances have had to wait longer than usual to get patients through the doors.

"Ultimately, if our ambulances are waiting outside ED doors, they are not available to respond to emergencies in the community," St John's deputy chief executive of ambulance operations Dan Ohs says. 

"To see this sort of demand on the health system in summer gives us immense worry for what is going to happen in winter."  

Health Minister Andrew Little today acknowledged the problem, but put some of the responsibility back on hospital management.  

"There is a capacity problem, but I think it is also in the way that patients who are within the hospital, not just the emergency department but elsewhere in the hospital, the way they are being managed."  

A meeting he had with one emergency specialist, Dr John Bonning, is offering the sector some hope.  

Bonning, the head of the Australasia College for Emergency Medicine, says the minister expressed a desire to fix the problem.  

"Of course, this leadership needs to come from the top, so we need the minister to set these expectations of DHBs and the DHBs need to focus their attention on the entire journey - both in the emergency department but also in the wards," Bonning says.

And while change may come, it is too late for the nurse who is leaving the profession and the country.  

"This has taken a huge burden on my mental health. I was burnt out, severely fatigued, emotionally drained, physically I felt very drained," he says.

"Socially I can't interact with people the way I used to."  

His hope is that change comes, before more staff and patients are lost to a system in crisis.

News tip or more information? Email Corazon Miller or