“I have been told they were waiting for an hour or two,” Mr Hill said.
Safer Care Victoria chief executive Euan Wallace confirmed the watchdog was investigating the matter.
“We are reviewing that patient’s care to really ask questions about whether it was an unavoidable event or not,” Professor Wallace said.
He said he was not able to go into detail about the incident for privacy reasons and because it was the subject of an ongoing investigation.
Mr Hill said an elderly man recently died at the Werribee Mercy Hospital after waiting outside for 90 minutes, having a cardiac arrest shortly before he was due to be admitted.
Professor Wallace confirmed Mercy Health and Ambulance Victoria were jointly investigating that patient’s death, with the findings to be handed to Safe Care Victoria.
The union account of the second incident is strongly disputed by the hospital, and a spokesman said that reports a patient had died after not being assessed in the emergency department as a result of coronavirus arrangements were incorrect.
“A delay in transferring an elderly patient from an ambulance bay to the emergency department at Werribee Mercy Hospital has been acknowledged, but it was not the cause of the patient’s subsequent death,” a spokesman said.
While Mr Hill is not claiming the deaths were preventable, he said they were distressing to paramedics involved. Neither patient who died was suspected of having coronavirus.
“Sitting outside the hospital with a patient that needs care and waiting as they deteriorate and go into cardiac arrest is incredibly traumatic,” he said.
Mr Hill said long delays to admissions to emergency departments prevented ambulance crews from moving on to see the next patient.
The long waits for admission recently led to a change of protocol, with paramedics being told to wait no longer than 20 minutes before leaving patients in the care of hospital staff so they can get to other call-outs.
As Victoria records an alarming surge in coronavirus patients and emergency department numbers soar, Professor Wallace said hospitals were having to quickly readjust coronavirus plans to ensure separation between those suspected of being infected and others seeking treatment.
“As our knowledge of the virus has changed so has our guidance for hospitals,” he said. “Our [emergency departments] are now having to look at how they maintain this cohort and separation of patients when [those departments] are getting busier again and it is an ongoing challenge for them,” Professor Wallace said.
To prevent outbreaks, emergency departments have been divided so those with COVID-19 symptoms are treated in a separate area from other patients.
Ambulance Victoria confirmed that paramedics have been dealing with instances of longer than usual transfer times as a result of “robust measures in place to contain COVID-19”.
“Ambulance Victoria has notified one case to Safer Care Victoria,” the organisation’s executive director of clinical operations, Mick Stephenson, said. “We extend our deepest sympathies to this patient’s families and loved ones.”
Mr Stephenson said changes to the triage process during the COVID-19 pandemic had been introduced in consultation with the Health Department “to ensure all patients are moved into emergency departments quickly and appropriately”.
In April, during the pandemic’s first peak in Victoria, the number of patients in emergency departments plummeted, with people avoiding hospitals amid fears of overburdening the health service or being infected with coronavirus.
In the months since, as patient numbers have returned to normal, doctors have warned that emergency department overcrowding is again placing lives at risk.
The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine’s Dr Mya Cubitt said new infection control measures to protect staff and patients were also contributing to the crowding. The college has called for state and federal governments to extend their crisis response to the coronavirus with new measures to reduce demand on emergency services.
“It is completely unacceptable to have patients crowded together in emergency departments,” Dr Cubitt said.
“It is equally unacceptable to have these patients being treated in ambulances for extended periods as they wait for space to free up inside the hospital.”
A spokesman for the Austin Hospital said waiting times in the emergency department varied depending on demand, with patients prioritised based on the severity of their condition.
“Any critical incident is investigated to ensure the appropriate care has been provided and this can include working with the coroner or Safer Care Victoria to identify improvements that can be made to systems and processes,” he said.
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Aisha Dow reports on health for The Age and is a former city reporter.
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.