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Using ‘reverse triage’ to create hospital surge capacity: Royal Darwin Hospital's response to the Ashmore Reef disaster
  1. Peter S Satterthwaite1,2,
  2. Carol J Atkinson1
  1. 1Royal Darwin Hospital, Casuarina, Australia
  2. 2Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Peter S Satterthwaite, Director Medical Services & Education, Royal Darwin Hospital, Associate Professor (Health Management), Flinders University, PO Box 41325, Casuarina, NT 0810, Australia; peter.satterthwaite{at}


This report analyses the impact of reverse triage, as described by Kelen, to rapidly assess the need for continuing inpatient care and to expedite patient discharge to create surge capacity for disaster victims. The Royal Darwin Hospital was asked to take up to 30 casualties suffering from blast injuries from a boat carrying asylum seekers that had exploded 840 km west of Darwin. The hospital was full, with a backlog of cases awaiting admission in the emergency department. The Disaster Response Team convened at 10:00 to develop the surge capacity to admit up to 30 casualties. By 14:00, 56 beds (16% of capacity) were predicted to be available by 18:00. The special circumstances of a disaster enabled staff to suspend their usual activities and place a priority on triaging inpatients' suitability for discharge. The External Disaster Plan was activated and response protocols were followed. Normal elective activity was suspended. Multidisciplinary teams immediately assessed patients and completed the necessary clinical and administrative requirements to discharge them quickly. As per the Plan there was increased use of community care options: respite nursing home beds and community nursing services. Through a combination of cancellation of all planned admissions, discharging 19 patients at least 1 day earlier than planned and discharging all patients earlier in the day surge capacity was made available in Royal Darwin Hospital to accommodate blast victims. Notably, reverse triage resulted in no increase in clinical risk with only one patient who was discharged early returning for further treatment.

  • Emergency care systems emergency care systems
  • major incidents
  • prehospital care
  • major incident/ planning major incident/ planning

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  • Competing interests This research and paper was written as a part of my paid employment with the Department of Health and Families, Northern Territory government (PS).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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