Record numbers of patients were also presenting at emergency departments and showed no sign of slowing as the state enters the winter flu season.
The unprecedented high rate of “summer flu” was partly responsible, as well as the relentless swelling of the chronically ill and ageing population.
NSWA director of data and analytics Peter Payne said paramedics had also reported an uptick in people with respiratory, flu-like conditions, as well as a higher proportion of patients needed to be transferred to hospital.
“That leads us to believe people are genuinely sicker and we’re seeing an increase there,” he said. “This isn’t unique to NSW. All the eastern state [ambulance services] have experienced unprecedented growth in demand.”
Paramedics couldn’t reach over 40 per cent of ’emergency’ P1 cases within 15 minutes, up 2.7 percentage points on summer 2018. These patients might be unconscious, have breathing problems or serious haemorrhage.
But the median response time for P1A is stable at 7.5 minutes, despite 1006 more responses than summer 2018 (an 18.7 per cent rise to 6380).
The latest BHI report is the first to map wait time variations between local areas known as ‘Statistical Areas Level 3’ (SA3s).
Dural – Wiseman’s Ferry SA3 had the worst response times for P1 patients in NSW, with paramedics reaching just 14.1 per cent in 15 minutes, and a median wait time of 20.5 minutes.
In Rouse Hill – McGraths Hill, more than half of patients waited longer than 15 minutes for an ambulance (51.9 per cent), down by 2.6 percentage points on summer 2018.
In Sutherland – Menai – Heathcote, 48 per cent of P1 patients waited over 15 minutes (up 1.4 percentage points on last year).
Ambulances reached 26.6 per cent of P1 patients in Wollondilly within 15 minutes and in Hawkesbury it was 20.3 per cent.
BHI chief executive Diane Watson said Sydney’s waterways and national parks were partly responsible for the longer wait times in the Hawkesbury, Wiseman’s Ferry and around the airport.
Response times were also affected by call-outs to locations far from the nearest hospital, where an ambulance has just delivered a patient.
They’re also affected by long distances between patient locations and hospitals where ambulances have just transported an earlier patient.
Sydney Inner City had the shortest median wait time for P1 patients in NSW (8.3 minutes), with paramedics reaching almost 80 per cent within 15 minutes.
Cronulla – Miranda – Caringbah had the second shortest in Sydney (9.2 minutes), followed by Eastern Suburbs (South), Parramatta and Kogarah – Rockdale.
While P1 response times held steady, ‘urgent’ Priority 2 responses have deteriorated over the past five years.
The number of P2 patients has blown out since a range of previously P1 conditions were downgraded to P2 in 2015, including people hemorrhaging blood after sexual assault and suicide attempts.
There was almost twice the number of P2 cases this summer than summer 2014 (148,355 versus 78,331), and median response times rose from 16.6 to 19.9 minutes.
“The ambulance service needs to recognise that P2 jobs such as an elderly patient waiting alone in pain for an extended period brings great anguish to both the patient and their family. These jobs deserve greater attention than they are currently getting,” he said.
Just under one-third of there ‘urgent’ cases waited longer than 30 minutes for an ambulance to reach them, down 5.2 percentage points.
Kate Aubusson is Health Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
Nigel Gladstone is The Sydney Morning Herald’s data journalist.