PATIENTS who try to skip the queue in an ambulance are in for a shock at the emergency department.
Tamworth Hospital's chart shows the number of patients who turned up to ED hardly changed since the same time last year.
Yet arrivals by ambulance grew by 20 per cent, Bureau of Health Information data reveals.
Whether patients come by car, ambulance or scooter, it all comes down to how sick they are, Hunter New England Heath director of rural and regional services Susan Heyman said.
"This is a significant number, a 20.3 per cent increase in arrivals by ambulance is a significant shift in the way people are coming to the ED for treatment," she said.
"People who need immediate medical care for life-threatening conditions are treated by doctors and nurses first."
Car accidents and heart attacks are serious enough for ambulance transfer, but people with chronic, stable illnesses should seek help from their GP first.
In rural areas like Gunnedah, rocky retention rates for doctors are likely to blame for the spike in the number of people going to the hospital.
Patients at McKellar Rural Health Centre went without a full-time GP for almost a month from July to August.
"Gunnedah's ED had an 18.5 per cent increase in semi-urgent patients, that reflects some of the pressures on the GP workforce out at Gunnedah where the GP's are on leave this year at different times," Ms Heyman said.
"We're one healthcare system and if people aren't able to access a GP, they will access the emergency department, which is what we've seen at Gunnedah."
While Tamworth and Gunnedah have been swamped with people hitching an ambulance ride to hospital, the time it takes to transfer patients into care is on target.
At least 90 per cent of patients brought in by paramedics are transferred to the hospital's care within 27 minutes in Tamworth.
"There are really amazing staff in these rural areas that the community should be proud about," Ms Heyman said.
Tamworth has a reputation for its baby boom, but the number of babies born dropped by 17.5 per cent compared to the same time last year.
There's no clear indication why, but Ms Heyman said she wouldn't be surprised if the drought had impacted numbers.
"I think it goes up and down," she said.
"I do wonder about the drought and its impact financial on people's decisions to have children or not."