Overcrowding in hospitals 'no longer just a winter problem', Health Minister concedes

Overcrowding in hospitals 'no longer just a winter problem', Health Minister concedes
Simon Harris TD, Minister for Health, with Angela Twohey, Secretary of Friends of Nenagh Hospital, pictured at the official opening of the UL Hospital's Cataract Centre at Nenagh Hospital. Pic: Brian Arthur

By David Raleigh

Minister for Health Simon Harris said today he is “worried” about the impact on patients attending hospital over the coming winter period, as the trolley crisis remains frozen in place with little sign of it thawing out.

Speaking in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, where he opened a new cataract surgical centre, he told reporters: “I say this respectfully, everybody asks am I worried about winter (approaching); I’m actually worried about the capacity of the health service everyday of the week.”

“It’s no longer just a winter problem - we don't have enough (bed) capacity in the Irish health service,” he added.

The minister acknowledged “a need for more capacity in the acute hospital setting, and more step down facilities, and more primary care”.

“This winter will be a challenge, as every winter is, as everyday is,” he said.

The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has warned that 2018 is forecast to be the worst year ever for hospital patient overcrowding, with 100,000 expected to have been on trolleys by the end of December.

Minister Harris said a number of measures would be, and were being, put in place to try to tackle the crisis.

He announced today that a 60-bed modular unit would likely be constructed on the grounds of University Hospital Limerick by this time next year, to help alleviate pressures on the hospital’s emergency department as an “interim” measure.

The hospital, where 51 patients languished on trolleys today, has consistently had the highest number of patients on trolleys nationally.

Management at UHL have also sought a permanent 96-single bed unit, but while the proposed unit is included in the government’s capital investment plan, there is no confirmed construction timeline on it.

Despite a new €25m emergency department opening at UHL last year, the trolley crisis there, as is like at hospitals around the country, continues unabated.

Minister Harris said the government has “a plan to increase hospital beds by 2,600 over the next ten years” to help alleviate the problems.

“We need to front-load that as much as we can. This year, so far, we have opened 240 extra hospital beds. We have about 79 more to come on stream between now and early 2019.”

He said he expected that a 40-bed “modular” unit would open in Clonmel in the first quarter of 2019.

“We’ve allocated an additional €10m, between now and the end of the year, to the HSE, to provide more home care and more transitional care beds, to try and get patients in and out of (hospitals) as quickly as possible,” he said.

“More beds” he said was the “clear” solution to the crisis, however, the minister acknowledged ongoing “challenges” in recruiting and retaining staff.

There is a “package of measures through the public service pay commission” to try and attract, retain, nurses and doctors.

In relation to “new entry consultants”, he said he hoped the government could “sit down and work out” a way of “keeping our medical talent here in Ireland, where we need them.”

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