Experts issue stark warning as emergency departments are overrun by huge spike in patients

Emergency departments around the country are seeing unprecedented numbers of sick and injured patients, leaving at least one hospital struggling to find enough beds.

The huge surge has led to a warning that lives could be put at risk if it's not addressed.

"We have had an unprecedented demand in the last two months and particularly in the last three weeks to the Emergency Department at Middlemore," said Emergency Department Clinical Director, Dr Vanessa Thornton.

Middlemore ED has seen a 17 percent increase in patients this month compared to the same time last year.

Monday night was so busy that patients were left lining up in the ambulance bay outside the hospital, waiting for beds.  It's only ever happened once before...and that was on the previous Monday.

Dr Thornton says no patients were put at risk and anyone who needs emergency care will get it.

"We had patients supervised by clinical staff throughout but obviously it's not the ideal scenario," said Dr Thornton.

It has a flow-on effect to St John ambulance.

"There are occasions when our ambulance personnel experience significant delays transferring patients into the care of hospital personnel because the emergency department is full. This predominantly occurs in winter, but we have recently experienced significant delays at some hospitals during summer. This is extremely concerning in terms of what may yet occur this winter," said St John Clinical Director Dr Tony Smith.

It's not just Middlemore, there's been a surge in presentation to ED around the country - and there's not just one explanation.

"We're seeing a lot of people getting more chronically unwell, the elderly, people in nursing homes, and there is some trauma, alcohol-fueled violence, motor crashes," Dr John Bonning said Australasian College for Emergency Medicine. "This is a system capacity issue that is manifesting in the emergency department."

This time of year is normally quieter and there are already concerns about winter.

"It is worrying for us because it's summer and... We're starting to consider what we need to do in the next six months," said Dr Thornton

Yesterday the Director-General of Health told the AM Show hospitals are prepared in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.

"Yeah, hospitals are ready, our health system's ready," said Dr Ashley Bloomfield, "Everything from oxygen supply through to of course supply of PPE."

But Dr Bonning questions whether there are enough beds and staff.

"If COVID-19 was to hit New Zealand in any significant state at the moment the system would struggle enormously to cope," said Dr Bonning.

"We are getting patients that are staying for 24 hours or more in emergency departments waiting for a bed."

"The Government needs to focus on some targets around acute access to care and emergency departments otherwise there will be unnecessary deaths."

He's calling on the Health Minister to act.

"It's about more rest home beds, it's about more Allied Health on the wards so we can get patients sorted and discharged safely earlier, more hospital beds, there's got to be more investment in the health system."

He says urgent investment is needed, so New Zealand doesn't end up like the UK or US, come winter or another COVID-19 outbreak.