Tasmania's mentally-ill patients languishing in hospital emergency departments

The Australian Medical Association has called on the government to prioritise a rebuild of the Royal Hobart Hospital’s psychiatric ward, amid fears hospital operations are failing mentally ill patients.

Association representative Richard Benjamin told a state parliamentary inquiry into acute health services on Friday the hospital’s emergency department was being too heavily relied upon and its interim mental health observation unit was inadequate.

"The proposal was eight psychiatric patients in one room with little to no amenity," Dr Benjamin told the inquiry.​

“The AMA thought this proposal would be unsafe, untherapeutic and, therefore, unfit for purpose."

Health Minister Michael Ferguson dismissed concerns over the new unit.

He was backed by in-principle support from five of the hospital’s consultant psychiatrists, although in a letter they noted support was provided given the hospital was restricted from opening more adult psychiatric beds.

The unit consists of five beds and three recliner chairs and is designed for short-term stays for low-risk patients.

Dr Benjamin said due to the overall shortage of psychiatric beds in the Hobart hospital, up to 10 mental health patients have been waiting at one time within the emergency department for a bed on occasions.

He said for those who do get a psychiatric bed, there was pressure for them to be discharged prematurely.

"(Psychiatric patients) are no longer able to access specialist help in a timely way," Dr Benjamin said.

"Some simply leave the Royal and some wait for days in the emergency department.

“The coroner has ruled in one case that bed block was the critical factor in one patient's suicide and the AMA fears that more seriously adverse events will occur.”

He said the state fell below the national standard number of psychiatric beds at 20.4 per 100,000 of the population, compared to 24.2 per 100,000.

Dr Benjamin said the government’s move away from hospital-based psychiatric care to community-based care was out of step with the rest of the country.

Mr Ferguson disagreed.

“The government is committed to providing the best possible evidence-based mental health care for Tasmanians,” he said. 

“As is noted in the Rethink Mental Health Plan, mental health care in Australia has been refocussing away from institutionalised care to providing more support and care in the community over a number of years now.  

“This is specifically identified as a key reform direction in Rethink as well as the fifth National Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Plan recently endorsed unanimously by the Commonwealth and every state and territory.”

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