A choking baby spent more than 25 minutes in a border checkpoint queue this week, doctors say as they warn patients could die if the crossing system isn't improved.
Nine border clinicians have signed an open letter to the NSW and Victorian governments calling for a dedicated emergency services lane to allow for timely and safe movements of patients and staff between Albury and Wodonga.
The doctors also requested NSW health care workers entering Victoria for critical work be exempted from the need to self-isolate and patients who have been treated in Melbourne to be able to enter NSW for urgent care without the requirement to self-isolate.
Paediatrician Mark Norden said the group supported the need to control the COVID-19 pandemic but pointed out the unique nature of Albury Wodonga Health.
"The paediatric unit is forever crossing the border many times a day, in hours and after hours ... and the risk we have is getting stuck halfway," he said.
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"If I'm halfway across and I get called back to Wodonga because there's a flat baby that needs immediate resuscitation, I can't even turn around, I can't move, I'm stuck in the queue.
"I have to wait for 20 or 30 or 40 minutes to get to the end of queue, come back and then get around."
Dr Norden said a registrar stopped to assist a mother with a choking baby while crossing this week during a peak period, then had to intervene several more times as their cars progressed slowly through the queue.
"Twenty-five minutes later, they reached this checkpoint," he said.
The paediatrician stressed the health service had been putting contingency plans in place to deal with emergencies, but agreed some situations were potentially fatal.
"The longer the lack of an emergency lane exists, the more likely something like that could happen," he said.
Urologist Jonathan Lewin said as a Wodonga resident, he could face delays if trying to reach a critically unwell patient in Albury.
"It could take me up to an hour to get in there; if that patient is bleeding, they may not survive that," he said.
Dr Lewin said the clinicians wanted to bring the situation to the attention of the decision makers.
"If the message was getting through, we wouldn't be here," he said at Friday's media conference.
"I think they have to understand this cross-border arrangement and the fact that if you're preventing staff from working in their normal place of work, then patients are going to suffer because of it.
"This problem is fixable.
"If we can raise the exemption, as not the whole of Victoria, but raise it into travelling within north east Victoria, into our catchment area, so our staff can travel to Wangaratta, can travel to Bright, can travel to Beechworth."
Oncologist Craig Underhill said reducing patients' access to health care brought long-term consequences.
"It's really important that despite these barriers that people attend medical appointments and seek medical care, otherwise, we know from overseas experience, that people present later and there's more serious consequences," he said.
"We have enough to do with our normal work, we have enough to do preparing for COVID cases, we don't need this border closure thrown in the mix as well, it's been a really difficult two weeks for all the staff working across the health system.
"This is having a broad impact on the life of border residents, and we need some sense really from governments to solve the problem."
Dr Lewin acknowledged the importance of stopping the COVID-19 pandemic, but noted the implications of elderly patients not visiting GPs or surgeries being postponed.
"I can tell you, there's been a reduction of 40 per cent in prostate cancer diagnoses in Victoria since the start of the pandemic; some of those patients are going to die," he said.
"We have to get that balance right between the needs of patients who are not suffering from coronavirus but who are going to suffer consequences because of it.
"Some of these are fairly black and white examples."
Albury Wodonga Health board chair Matt Burke supported the doctors' call for an emergency services lane and exemptions to the self-isolation restrictions for NSW staff.
"We recognise the national, indeed global, priority to stop the spread of COVID-19, and we absolutely understand the need for public health orders as part of this measure," he said.
"But it must be acknowledged our cross-border services cannot operate safely under these increased restrictions.
"Providing health services in a cross-border environment is complicated, which is why I am working closely with government authorities to reach an urgent satisfactory solution to patient, staff and emergency access.
"Despite these difficulties we strongly encourage people to still seek treatment, the Albury Wodonga Health service remains committed to providing the very best of care to its community."
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