A man was told to drive more than 600 kilometres across the South Australian outback between hospitals for medical tests after a stroke, the ABC can reveal.
Trevor Gotte, 63, went to Coober Pedy hospital a few days after his symptoms in late February last year and said a locum doctor at the community health centre told him he would need tests and scans at Whyalla Hospital, about 610km away.
He said the doctor raised the option of calling the Royal Flying Doctor Service for a transfer, but Mr Gotte and his partner were ultimately asked to make the trip in their own car.
“[The doctor] suspected a stroke and there was mention of getting the Flying Doctor, and I don’t know what went on, but for some reason he mentioned driving, so we left Coober Pedy and drove,” he said.
“I got the feeling that there was just a lack of familiarity with the [health] system, or something.”
Mr Gotte said he and his partner, Cheryl Walker, took six hours to make the trip south by road.
“On the way down Cheryl was getting very, very fatigued so I tried to give her a rest [by driving],” he said.
“I drove the stretch between Glendambo and Pimba and, with one arm working, I managed to get us into Pimba.
“I was extremely angry because I shouldn’t have been put in that situation.”
South Australian Health Minister Peter Malinauskas said the state had a world-class public health system, but he promised to look into Mr Gotte’s case.
“Patient safety is my number one priority,” he said.
“I am seeking further information about the circumstances around this patient’s presentation and treatment.”
Five days until stroke unit admission
Mr Gotte said an overnight stop was needed at Port Augusta and he got to Whyalla the next day, then waited two days for an MRI test because there was no technician available sooner.
The result confirmed Mr Gotte had suffered a number of strokes in recent days and had blood clots in his brain.
He was admitted to the Royal Adelaide Hospital stroke unit five days after first presenting at Coober Pedy hospital.
Ms Walker said a doctor there questioned the time taken.
“When we got to the unit [the doctor] said, ‘Are these dates right? This happened like, five or six days ago?'” his partner said.
She said they explained their trip from the outback.
“[The doctors] explained that there’s a 72-hour window — if you’re having a stroke they can give you an injection to make sure the clot doesn’t go to your brain,” Ms Walker said.
“We missed that window completely.”
Mr Gotte said he considered himself lucky that he ended up with “two small calcified nodules” in his brain and “numbness in two fingers”.
Opposition points to health system ‘problems’
Earlier this week, the ABC revealed SA Health ignored warnings from one its senior bureaucrats last year that someone could be seriously injured or killed under its regional patient transfer policy.
Just months later, a 72-year-old inpatient from Renmark Hospital crashed while driving himself between hospitals in the state’s Riverland.
Opposition health spokesman Stephen Wade said it was clear there were systemic problems in the Country Health SA division and patients were at risk.
“What [the two cases] highlight is that there’s problems with patient transport in country areas and there’s a problem with the availability of imaging services in country areas,” he said.
Mr Wade criticised health funding cuts.
“The Government has reduced funding to Country Health SA, and it’s the only region that had a reduction in funding in the last financial year,” he said.
Mr Gotte said he hoped his experience might be used as a way to ensure other patients are not put in the same position.
“I have the feeling that people in these remote areas get second-tier health services,” he said.
Coroner considers Riverland death
Coroner Mark Johns’s office said steps were being taken to obtain more information about the Renmark man’s death.
“The coroner is aware of recent reports in the media concerning this matter,” a staffer said.
“A decision not to hold an inquest does not preclude reconsideration of that decision, in light of developments.
“The coroner has decided to request that further information be obtained in this case.”
SA Salaried Medical Officers Association official Bernadette Mulholland said the Riverland case deserved a thorough investigation.
“This is an issue around quality and safety for patient care,” she said.
“It’s really important for [SA Health] to review that situation and put structures in place so it can’t happen again.”