SA Ambulance Service defends response time after woman in pain left waiting for paramedics

The South Australian Ambulance Service (SAAS) has defended its response time after a grandmother with cancer and in “extreme agony” was left waiting for paramedics last year.

Betty Dobson, who was battling pancreatic cancer, died last February from a perforated bowel.

Husband Stephen Dobson, of Hackham West, said he rang triple-0 when his wife complained she was in extreme pain on February 20, 2023.

He said they waited more than an hour before ringing back, only to be told there were no ambulances available.

With the help of a neighbour, Mr Dobson said he drove his 72-year-old wife to the Noarlunga Hospital.

Mr Dobson said had he known earlier an ambulance was not available, he would be able to make alternative arrangements to get his wife to a hospital.

Stephen and Julie Dobson lost their wife and mother Betty Dobson last February.(ABC News: Guido Salazar)

A state government spokesperson told the ABC ambulance service logs showed there were 22 minutes between Mr Dobson’s calls and the grandmother was initially assessed as a priority 3 patient, which has a target ambulance response time of under 30 minutes.

A SAAS spokesperson said the request for an ambulance was cancelled 22 minutes after the first call “at the caller’s request, as we were unable to give a definite time frame”.

While Ms Dobson’s family acknowledged an ambulance would not have saved her life, it would have eased her pain on her final day.

“We were waiting while she was in extreme agony for an ambulance that wasn’t going to arrive and the people at the call centre must have known that there wasn’t an ambulance on its way,” Mr Dobson said.

“Not only that, but there wasn’t going to be one.

“That was pretty hard to take in, we’re in a capital city, two kilometres from an ambulance station.”

Ms Dobson died at the Flinders Medical Centre the following day, four months after she was diagnosed with cancer.

“If the ambulance was earlier, it wouldn’t have prolonged her life but it certainly would have alleviated her pain,” Mr Dobson said.

Mr Dobson said he would have preferred an ambulance, which would provide his wife pain relief, “rather than going through the trauma of cramming her into a car”.

Grieving family wants answers

Daughter Julie Dobson said she wanted the health system to be improved to inform people how long they might be waiting for an ambulance.

“Uber can tell you how far away their food is but you can’t tell how far away an ambulance is,” Ms Dobson said.

“My mum suffering in absolute pain and not being able to have any form of pain relief and no one rang back.”

Julie Dobson said her mother was in pain the night before she died.(ABC News)

SAAS chief executive officer Rob Elliott said call back procedures are standard practice and were followed after Mr Dobson rang triple-0 but he would look into the case and provide the family answers.

He said commercial apps that track deliveries “are not subject to the same pressures of those urgent, life-threatening calls coming in”.

“Unfortunately every triple-0 call can change our operating picture in an area, so while we might have an ambulance almost ready to arrive, if a genuine high priority medical emergency was to happen nearby, that ambulance would have to be diverted to the patient of the most urgency,” Mr Elliott said.

“In ambulance services, we feel the safer option is to call people back, have a clinical discussion about their healthcare and provide them with excellent advice.”

He said in some cases they might find and arrange alternate transport, and sometimes they were able to provide an estimated wait time for “lower acuity patients”.

Rob Elliott says he will follow up with the Dobson family.(ABC News)

A SAAS spokesperson said it was “not uncommon” for patients to consider “self-transport” after speaking with their operation centre staff.

“Where patients raise a concern about their call or care, every case is reviewed,” they said.

An opposition spokesperson called for an investigation into the circumstances before Ms Dobson was taken to hospital.

“This was an extremely traumatic experience for the Dobson family, who hardly had the stopwatch out when they were dealing with a loved one in excruciating pain,” they said.

“The question still remains as to why the Dobson family was told that no ambulances were available in their time of need, and we stand by their calls for answers.”

Health Minister Chris Picton said ambulance response times had “vastly improved” over the past two years.

“I think people can have confidence when they see those response times over the past couple of years have got significantly better that we are on the right trajectory as we put those resources and staff in place,” Mr Picton said.

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