Patients needing critical care are being turned away by the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide.
Doctors are struggling to find even a single bed to accommodate critically ill patients, putting lives at risk, newspapers reported.
The hospital is touted as one of South Australia's leading acute referral, teaching and research centres affiliated with the University of Adelaide.
The hospital is widely recognised for its achievements in such areas as renal medicine, cardiology, haematology/oncology, invitro fertilisation and surgery. It was the first teaching hospital in South Australia to be accredited by the Australian Council on Healthcare Standards which indicates that the hospital complies with national standards of care, the hospital website proclaims.
But it seems to have fallen on bad days. Senior radiologist Dr Ruben Sebben says turning away patients and delaying treatments, including for chemotherapy patients, is "the norm" in the overcrowded facility, and it is putting lives at risk.
He said the crisis came to a head last week, and The Advertiser
has confirmed the QEH was in "over census" mode on Thursday which, Dr Sebben said, was shorthand for "there ain't no beds left".
"Invariably we are shuffling patients around, backwards and forwards . . . it's almost certain to be full and we scrounge around to find a bed," he said.
"As happened to a lady from Barmera, you can travel 300km to come and see me and someone will come up and say there are no beds, we'll have to cancel you.
"Under the worst-case scenario if I'm spending time trying to find a bed for a critically ill patient, the interval . . . may in fact prove to be terminal."
Cardiology director Professor John Horowitz said the bed occupancy rate at the QEH was "around 98 per cent most of the time". Anything over 85 per cent is considered unsafe.
"You just have to walk in the door to realise the place is chock-a-block," Professor Horowitz said.
"What is obvious is the QEH needs about 50 more beds, and that would reduce occupancy rate from the high 90s to the low 90s."
Their comments follow a damning report by the Australian Medical Association that said 1500 Australians die each year because of overcrowding in public hospitals.
SA needs 300 beds to stop the needless deaths, the AMA says, and State President Dr Peter Ford says the problems are rampant across the public hospital system.
For years, doctors have complained the QEH was being downgraded. It has suffered funding cuts to intensive care, the loss of maternity services and will lose its renal unit under SA's Health Care Plan.
Dr Sebben says the proposed new Marjorie Jackson-Nelson Hospital is not the answer, because beds are needed in the more populous western and northern suburbs.
He estimates there are three times as many beds available for those in the city and eastern suburbs than there are for those in the northern and western suburbs.
"We don't need a state of the art hospital to treat patients, we just need the resources," he said.
Dr Ford said the QEH was undoubtedly under "immense pressure" and warned the Flinders Medical Centre was even worse.
"The Royal Adelaide Hospital also has plenty of problems," he said. "We know that even in the last year there have been many times when the RAH is overflowing, and they've had occasions when every intensive care bed was filled and they've had five patients ventilated in the recovery area."
Associate Professor Scott Baum, a former Adelaide resident now at Griffith University, has found poorer people tend to have less access to services, while the more affluent people are likely to be closer to hospitals, schools, and other services.
People in the northern and western suburbs who depend on the QEH, the Modbury Hospital or the Lyell McEwin are among the poorest in the state, he discovered.
Health Minister John Hill said he was "tired" of people attacking the QEH. "This is a great hospital, with a fantastic future serving the people of the western suburbs," he said.
"The Government is currently in the process of upgrading the QEH, with total funding of over $160 million for capital works.
"We are putting record investment into health services at the QEH, in fact funding under this government has increased by 46 per cent."
SA Health chief executive Tony Sherbon said an extra 72 doctors and 168 nurses had been employed at the QEH between 2002 and 2007.
"Reducing the waiting lists for elective surgery is a priority for the health service, and the contract with Aspen Medical provides a model for QEH's surgeons and anaesthetists," he said.