• Picture: Andrew Quilty/Oculi for SBS (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Homelessness is the biggest reason for frequent emergency department admissions in Northern Territory hospitals, according to a report published in the Medical Journal of Australia.
Rachael Hocking

15 Feb 2016 - 3:56 PM  UPDATED 16 Feb 2016 - 1:16 PM

The report found Aboriginal people were the most affected - they are more likely to be both homeless and admitted to the emergency department multiple times.

In the Northern Territory Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up seven per cent of homeless people- 15 times the national average. 

The report's findings suggest this figure is much higher, and have prompted calls by health professionals for better housing options, and conditions, in the Northern Territory and across the country.

Dr Simon Quilty is one of the report’s authors, and says it’s hard to take things like chronic illness seriously, when patients’ have to think about keeping a roof over their heads.  

'Real successes can be had in closing the gap once we identify what the real problems are.'

"When you work with remote Aboriginal people who are homeless, you realise that the health problems they have pale into insignificance on an individual level for them compared to the reality they face."

“So for somebody with a severe health problem on any particular day the issue will always be, ‘Where is the safest place for them to sleep?’" Dr Quilty said. 

The CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA), Michael Moore, agrees.

He says while the social determinates of health are complex –such as remoteness, chronic disease and misuse of alcohol- ‘the paper illustrates the most fundamental health issue is housing’. 

Researchers looked specifically at the emergency department of Katherine Hospital in the NT, between January and December of 2012, and at mortality data from the same hospital two years later. They found 7.5 per cent of frequent admissions died in that time. 

Dr Quilty says this finding is particularly startling. 

“The population we have studied are quite young - on average they were about 40 years of age – and over a ten year period, if this statistic were to carry on, more than 40 per cent of the patients would have died at the ten year mark.” 

The report also found a link in alcohol use and emergency department admissions, but noticed alcohol was more prominent in non-Indigenous patients who came from stable households.  

Dr Quilty says this shows homelessness is a far bigger issue than alcohol abuse in many areas of the Northern Territory. 

The researchers also noticed people who frequently attended hospital were more likely to come when the weather was hot or wet.  Frequent attendees who were also homeless, were 30 times more likely to turn up on a wet day than frequent attendees who had a home. But Mr Quilty says the link with weather was not particularly strong. 

“I think the homelessness problem is a continuation of dispossession of land, and it’s a very real phenomenon for people who live here. 

“Real successes can be had in closing the gap once we identify what the real problems are. And the real problem in the Northern Territory is homelessness,” Dr Quilty said.