Rebuild needed for Victoria’s broken health system, nurses say

One of Victoria’s largest regional hospitals remains in an “internal emergency” with nurses describing Bendigo Health as overrun by patients.

Bendigo Health on Wednesday called a “code yellow”, an internal emergency that means the hospital’s systems are unable to cope with demand.

Nurses say every bed was full and support staff trained in nursing had to help in intensive care units and emergency departments.

On Thursday afternoon, Bendigo Health said it remained in a state of code yellow.

A group of nurses stand in front of a hospital entrance
Bendigo Health nurses say the workforce is burning out because it is under-resourced and not prepared for surges in patient care.(ABC Central Victoria: Tyrone Dalton)

Damian Hurrell has been an intensive care nurse for 23 years at Bendigo’s hospital and was reassigned from his support role to prepare beds and care for patients coming into the intensive care unit.

“When I went down to the emergency department to pick up the patient that I was able to care for, every bed was full,” he told ABC Central Victoria breakfast host Fiona Parker.

“There were many colleagues doing the same thing as me – coming out of really important support roles to provide clinical care. There were many, many people in the waiting room and in ambulances waiting for care.”

Hospital workers have told the ABC that the code yellow internal emergency was a “s**tshow” and “the busiest day I’ve ever worked”, and said ambulance trolleys jammed the hospital’s emergency department corridor.

Last year, a survey at Bendigo Health found 50 per cent of staff planned to leave the hospital in the next two years.

Hospital: Rise in flu and COVID-19 causes internal emergency

Bendigo Health said the code yellow was called because of an increase in the number of COVID-19 inpatients and a high number of patients with respiratory illness in its wards.

The hospital urged patients to go to their GP or seek alternatives to coming to the emergency department.

“We have expanded our hospital in the home services and aged care respite. A significant amount of this demand is related to respiratory presentations, so we encourage everyone to get their COVID and flu vaccinations as a priority,” a spokesperson for Bendigo Health said.

“We had great support from our regional health services yesterday with 30 patients returning to the regions to be cared for locally and we are confident of their support over coming days.”

Mr Hurrell said nurses at the hospital were working double shifts to meet demand and that it was common to get three text messages a day from the hospital requesting people to fill shifts.

Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan, who is also the Member for Bendigo East, and the government have been contacted for comment.

A picture of an emergency sign, with carpark, ambulances and windows in background, outside a hospital's Emergency Department
Bendigo health workers have told the ABC as many as six ambulance beds were lining the corridors of the hospital.(Supplied: Bendigo Health)

In a statement, Bendigo Health said patients needing surgery were being seen first.

Mr Hurrell said nurses rejected the Victorian government’s latest pay offer because it was inadequate to keep nurses and midwives in the state’s health system.

“They’re burning out. And we can’t continue to provide the care if we don’t rebuild our system and rebuild the nursing and midwifery workforce,” he said.

“Morale is low. People are tired, people are desperate, and people are leaving the profession because they just can’t do it anymore.”

Health system ‘struggling and unsafe’

Man in shirt with stethoscope wrapped around neck looks at camera. He's in a hospital setting.
Australian Medical Association’s Dr Simon Judkins says Victoria’s health system isn’t working.(Supplied: AMA)

Australian Medical Association vice-president Dr Simon Judkins said hospitals rarely declared a code yellow, and that asking for people to not attend emergency departments was a “Band-Aid solution” for an “unprepared” health system.

“When you get to this point there are higher mortality rates, more people die, and treatments are delayed [with people] spending longer times in hospital,” he said.

“The usual reason they get to this point is because there is not enough capacity in the hospital system. We’re seeing patients spend longer in hospital beds.”

Dr Judkins said last week there were 40 patients lined up for the Ballarat Base Hospital emergency department’s 20 beds.

“If this is not the sign of a health system that is really struggling and is unsafe, it shows the system is not working,” he said.

“Yes, seasonal flu and COVID-19 are having an impact, but this is on top of a health system that is working at capacity most of the time.

“The flow-on effect is we see staff getting exhausted and making errors because they’re multitasking. It’s more than what just happens on that one day.”

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