Australia's already pressured hospital system would struggle to cope under a sudden surge of patients in the case of a large-scale emergency, say trauma and emergency specialists.
At present there are no standard preparedness targets for Australasian hospitals, says Dr Anthony Joseph, Director of Trauma at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital.
In the latest Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), Dr Joseph and his colleagues have published their study on whether Australasian public hospitals have the physical resources to cope with the mass casualties of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.
"We found that 61-82 per cent of critically injured patients would not have immediate access to operative care and 34-70 per cent would have delayed access to an Intensive Care Unit (ICU) bed in Australasia," says Dr Joseph. The estimates were measured against preparedness levels set for hospitals in the United States.
"We believe that the cumulative effect of all the present limitations of the hospital system would magnify existing resource gaps. On the basis of our findings, we recommend there be national agreement on disaster preparedness benchmarks and periodic publication of hospital performance indicators such as operating theatres and intensive care beds to enhance disaster preparedness."
In his editorial for the MJA, Dr Andrew Robertson, Chief Health Officer for the WA Department of Health, suggests a few steps to enhance public hospital disaster response.
"Temporary hospital facilities could be created within public hospitals by preparing caches of medical supplies and equipment," says Dr Robertson.
"Patients already in hospital who can be moved can be transferred to private hospitals and day procedure units to make way for disaster victims.
"General and private health practitioners could be used to provide care to these transferred patients and the 'walking wounded'."
Dr Robertson also suggests modified models of care such as longer working shifts and extended scope of practice for nurses, allied health practitioners and medical and other health students.