The early, severe start to the flu season is believed to be at least partly responsible for a sharp jump in the number of patients visiting Wagga Base Hospital's emergency department.
In the period from January to March 2019, 11,479 people visited Wagga Base Hospital's ED, an increase of 11.6 per cent on the same period in the previous year.
Statewide, more people attended NSW emergency departments between January and March than in any previous quarter on record, the latest Bureau of Health Information's Healthcare Quarterly report shows.
Wagga Base also recorded a hike in the number of patients arriving by ambulance, with the 2876 patients representing a 13 per cent increase.
The jump in patient numbers at Wagga Base is also being attributed to a various of causes from the shortage of GPs in smaller communities to a lack of available appointments with bulk-billing GPs.
"The early start to the flu season is what the increase is all about," director of public health for Murrumbidgee Tracey Oakman said.
"What we don't know is if the increase will continue to increase and go to a high peak or plateau at a higher level than usual, or drop early. The flu cases to date don't give us indication of what it will progress to."
The leap in ermergency room patient nuumbers has not been confined to Wagga.
"Emergency departments across the state experienced high demand during the quarter, particularly from patients triaged as emergency or urgent," BHI chief executive Diane Watson said.
NSW Ambulance also experienced a busy quarter, with more than 300,000 responses statewide, up 10.2 per cent from the same quarter last year.
More than 136,000 ambulance responses were categorised as emergencies and, of these, more than 6000 responses were for life-threatening cases.
Kerry Geale, chairman Wagga Local Health Advisory Committee, which provides a link between the health bureaucracy and residents, believes there are several reasons Wagga Base's ED is so much busier.
"I think one reason why is that the emergency department service has got so much better," he said.
"People are not waiting as long as they used to. Their attitudes might also have something to do with it. Some seem to think 'it's my hospital and I'm going to use it'.
"The other thing is that if people went to a GP or an after-hours clinic, they would have to pay if they weren't bulk-billed. At an emergency department, people don't have to pay.
"Perhaps it would help if more doctors bulk-billed."
Retired Tumut doctor Geoff Pritchard fears part of the reason Wagga Base's ED is experiencing large jumps in patient numbers is because a lack of doctors in smaller communities is funnelling more patients to the larger hospital, although he does think the cost of paying to see a GP or a specialist could also be playing a role.
"In Tumut, for example, there is often not a doctor on call, so when there is an emergency, the patients have to be sent to Wagga, often in an ambulance," Dr Pritchard said.
"Often it is for something that could have been sorted at a local level and it also takes ambulances away from the area for long periods of time."