Australia’s health system is failing to meet the needs of people who present to emergency departments with a mental health crisis, according to a new Australasian College for Emergency Medicine (ACEM) analysis released today.

Every year, more than 250,000 Australians present to emergency departments seeking help for acute mental and behavioural conditions. Patients are facing extreme wait times to be assessed, enduring longer periods of treatment and, as a result, leaving the emergency department prior to their treatment being completed.

ACEM, the peak body for emergency medicine in Australia and New Zealand, has described as “damning” the analysis of the data and the experiences of clinicians, consumers and carers, contained in a new report titled The Long Wait:  An Analysis of Mental Health Presentations to Australian Emergency Departments.

“The experiences that people with mental health crises seeking help from emergency departments are having across Australia aren’t good enough,” ACEM President Dr Simon Judkins said. “ACEM’s research shows that, after initial emergency assessment, this group consistently experiences protracted and harmful delays in receiving mental health assessment and care, with particular concern focused on significant delays to inpatient care. These delays undermine patients’ health and recovery, place considerable stress and strain on emergency department teams and waste limited health resources.

“While there is much that can be done to improve the experiences of people who present to emergency departments with mental health crises, it is also essential that system responses beyond the emergency department are improved.”

Emergency departments are failing in their role as a timely and accessible entry point to the mental health system

An analysis of key mental health presentation data from the 2016/17 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s (AIHW) National Non-Admitted Patient Emergency Department Care Database found:

  • People presenting with acute mental and behavioural conditions are not treated within the clinically recommended timeframe of 30 minutes.
  • People with mental health crises have very long lengths of stay. For all emergency department presentations, 90 per-cent of people left the emergency departments within seven hours, while for people presenting with acute mental health crises this figure was 11.5 hours. In South Australia, 90 per-cent of people with mental health presentations left within 16.5 hours, in Western Australia they left within 15 hours and in Tasmania they left within 14 hours. Notably for 10 per-cent of presentations, their waiting time far exceeds these times, further worsening their conditions.
  • Almost 7,000 people who sought help from emergency departments for their acute mental and behavioural condition left before finishing treatment.
  • While Indigenous Australians make up around three per-cent of the Australian population, they comprise 11 per cent of all emergency department mental health presentations across the country.

“We can, and must, do better,” Dr Judkins said.

“These are problems that emergency doctors cannot solve alone; they reflect a sector under great stress and lack of a plan for system-wide development.”

Download: The Long Wait:  An Analysis of Mental Health Presentations to Australian Emergency Departments

Mental Health in the Emergency Department Summit

ACEM, in collaboration with the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, will host a Mental Health in the Emergency Department Summit on Tuesday, October 16. To be held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, the Summit will bring together more than 150 consumers, clinicians and key decision makers to design and agree on the way to improve health outcomes for one of the most vulnerable populations in our communities – patients with acute mental and behavioural conditions.

“We’re calling on health leaders, including governments, to start putting some measures in place to make sure this is addressed, and the Summit will set the agenda for policy reform,” Dr Judkins said.

Find out more about the Summit, including the official program, speakers and resources

 ACEM is the peak body for emergency medicine in Australia and New Zealand, responsible for training emergency physicians and advancement of professional standards.
Andre Khoury
ACEM Public Affairs Manager
03 8679 8813
0498 068 023
[email protected]