Architectural drawing of the new St John of God hospital in Subiaco, comprising two rectangular towers.

Private emergency rooms are on the rise in WA. What does that mean for public health care?

Health industry experts say WA’s rising number of private emergency departments is unlikely to erode investment in public hospitals, but patients should understand the limitations and costs of private EDs.

By the end of 2025, the number of private emergency departments — which charge up to $295 to see a doctor — is expected to have tripled in WA.

“It is a little bit curious because emergency departments are not profitable things for private hospitals,” St John of God Health Care Group chief executive Shane Kelly said.

“They’re generally run at a loss.”

For almost 20 years, the only private emergency department in WA was the St John of God facility in Murdoch.

In November, Hollywood Hospital opened a $67 million emergency department.

In May, the hospital said it had seen 5,000 patients in its first six months. It charges a $200 consultation fee.

St John of God Health Care Group has also announced plans to build the state’s third private emergency department at its Subiaco hospital by the end of 2025.

Rise reflects demand, chief says

Dr Kelly said the rising investment in private emergency departments in WA reflected high demand for emergency care overall.

“Obviously, our public emergency departments are pretty busy — very busy, in fact — and, I think, they’re looking for another option,” he said.

Dr Kelly says he does not expect the rising number of private emergency departments in WA to affect public health services.(Supplied)

The motivation for private hospitals, Dr Kelly said, was to fill empty beds by bringing more patients to the hospital door.

St John of God hospitals waives the emergency consultation fee of $295 if patients are admitted into the hospital, he said.

Since it opened in 1994, St John of God’s Murdoch-based emergency department has seen about 20,000 patients annually.

Fees raised to ‘moderate’ demand

But last year, as the community spread of COVID-19 ballooned, the facility found itself under pressure as patient numbers reached a record high of 25,000.

Pandemic-related staff shortages were also affecting the private ED’s capacity, Dr Kelly said.

Demand for the facility grew so high that the facility raised its fees by $100 to $295.

“We were trying to moderate the demand a little bit,” Dr Kelly said.

He said patient numbers had dropped back to normal in 2022, which he said was likely linked to the fee hike and the launch of the Hollywood facility in November.

Dr Kelly said he did not believe the growing number of private hospitals would reduce investment in public emergency departments, already under enormous stress, because he said the number of private patients was “modest” overall.

“For example, we see about 80,000 a year in our St John of God public emergency department at Midland,” Dr Kelly said.

But, he said, they only saw up to 25,000 patients at the emergency hospital.

“So that puts it in perspective,” Dr Kelly said.

More choice for consumers

WA Health Consumers’ Council deputy director Clare Mullen said providing more choices would be positive for health care overall.

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