Axe hovers over medical chopper services

A review of aeromedical services in NSW has diagnosed the need for sweeping reform, including the removal of Wollongong’s only medical helicopter and discontinuing winching operations in Tamworth.

However, bases in Newcastle, Tamworth and Orange would become 24-hour, seven day a week operations should the NSW government adopt the recommendations of the independent review by Ernst & Young.

The long-awaited report has found there will be a 23 per cent increase in demand for the state’s medical chopper fleet over the next decade and unless changes are made, mission response times will significantly deteriorate in Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle and central and northern NSW.

Major proposed changes include:

Ceasing winching operations out of Wollongong and Tamworth and restricting them to just four bases: Sydney, Canberra, Newcastle, and Lismore.

* Investigate moving the Wollongong service to a planned $50 million 'mega-base' in Sydney.

* Review the future of the Lismore service once a new Gold Coast retrieval service is established.

* Increase operating hours and staffing levels at Orange ,Tamworth and Newcastle bases from 2014.

*Slashing the number of dedicated aeromedical regions from five to two.

The NSW helicopter fleet is deployed to serious emergencies and whisks rural and regional residents to large hospitals when their condition worsens or their local hospital can not provide specialist treatment. The choppers performed more than 3,300 missions in 2011.

The proposed changes will spark a backlash from many regional communities already concerned they are not adequately serviced by aeromedical services.



Ernst & Young claims restricting winching to just four bases would add another eight minutes to the maximum time it would take to reach any NSW emergency scene. 

NSW is currently serviced by five different types of helicopters. The state's fleet totals 15.

The review has recommended moving to just two models of identically configured helicopters.

“It is estimated that this strategy, combined with changes to the number of existing regions and helicopter operators could result in reducing the fleet from 15 to 12 helicopters and the number of back-up helicopters from six to three with the potential to deliver a recurrent annual saving of around $6.7 million,” the report found.

Taking into account the potential savings and cost of implementing the other Ernst & Young recommendations in full, the cash-strapped NSW government will need to find another $7.3 million a year by 2020 to fund the cost of medical helicopters.

A NSW Health spokeswoman said the report had been sent to about 150 stakeholders for comment. They include the Ambulance Service of NSW, clinicians, a critical care taskforce, hospitals, unions and MPs.

The government will release its response to the review once the formal submission period closes in February.

The Wollongong-based chopper facing the axe spent 550 hours in the air performing 384 missions during 2011.


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