Published: February 11, 2013 - 3:00AM
PARAMEDICS called in sick on a record number of days last year, despite Ambulance Victoria spending more than ever on counselling and mental health programs.
Documents released under freedom of information show that an average of 46 paramedics were on sick leave every day last year.
The documents also show that hundreds of thousands of dollars may have been spent by Ambulance Victoria on an unprecedented number of injury claims by paramedics.
Fairfax Media revealed last May that three paramedics had committed suicide in a four-month period, and eight had taken their own lives since 2009, prompting fears their mental wellbeing had been ignored.
Ambulance Victoria said that a peer-support and counselling service was available around the clock for paramedics and at least one psychologist appointment was encouraged each year.
But a paramedic of more than 25 years' experience who had attended the drowning of a child and fatal car accidents in 2012 said he had never been offered a psychologist appointment.
He said the peer-support program was flawed and the work should be done by professionals. ''The contact is not being made when it should be, when the cues are there, and paramedics don't have any faith in the system because of that,'' he said.
The Ambulance Victoria documents show that almost $1.2 million was spent on initiatives including a counselling unit and peer-support program, $140,000 more than the previous year and the most spent since Victoria's ambulance services were merged in 2008.
The total amount spent on mental-health awareness programs was not available, Ambulance Victoria said.
''As Ambulance Victoria has a range of other informal mechanisms and programs in place to provide support and education regarding mental-health awareness, the exact total figure representing expenditure on mental-health awareness is not quantifiable,'' the organisation wrote.
Paramedics spent 134,146 hours on sick leave last year, the equivalent of 46 eight-hour shifts each day. The figure had increased by 13 per cent from 2010-11. No earlier data was available.
Flight paramedics, team managers and Mobile Intensive Care Ambulance paramedics were included in the total.
Ambulance Victoria would not outline how many hours of sick leave had been caused by particular ailments, such as mental illness or manual lifting injuries.
But AV's regional services general manager, Tony Walker, said the most common injury claim related to lifting and moving patients. He said the organisation had invested in lifting equipment, training and programs to reduce those injuries. There had been a 3 per cent total reduction in more severe injury claims over the past three years, taking into account the increased size of the service.
Mr Walker said total sick leave in Ambulance Victoria, taking into account all employees, had reduced by 5 per cent compared with last year.
''We acknowledge that the work our paramedics do can be physical and stressful and we are serious about tackling issues such as psychological and physical health in a proactive and preventative way,'' he said.
''Our workforce has continued to grow over the past few years and the increase in hours lost reflects this increasing size of our workforce.''
Mr Walker dismissed concerns about the effectiveness of mental-health programs, saying those who used the peer-support program had provided about 90 per cent positive feedback ''for a number of years''.
There were 654 injury claims received last year, but it is unclear how much they cost Ambulance Victoria. There were 355 standard claims, relating to an illness or injury resulting in 10 days off work or where the cost of the claim exceeds $629.
The number of claims increased by 48 from 2010-11, and has increased by about 30 per cent since 2008-09.
An RMIT study published in 2010 found more than 10 per cent of Melbourne paramedics suffered severe or extremely severe depression. A further 12 per cent of the 342 paramedics studied had moderate levels of depression, and 14 per cent had a mild form.
This story was found at: http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/paramedics-take-record-number-of-sick-days-20130211-2e76t.html