Concerns that Waterford University Hospital is being left behind within the wider group are widespread, hears Catherine Shanahan.
On May 16, 2014, Waterford Regional Hospital was formally renamed University Hospital Waterford by Health Minister James Reilly.
It was a big day in the hospital’s history: A new emergency department and a new neo-natal unit were opened. A new CT scanner was unveiled.
The clinical director, Rob Landers, said, in good faith, that the €11m investment “demonstrates the ongoing commitment to University Hospital Waterford as part of the hospital group”.
The group Dr Landers was referring to was the South South West Hospital Group.
Fast-forward five years and things have not quite gone according to plan.
In fact, some of those on the ground in Waterford would argue that being part of a hospital group has, in some respects, hampered its development, particularly when it comes to capital investment.
This is an argument also put forward in relation to University Hospital Kerry, where Fianna Fáil TD John Brassil has said that being part of a hospital group has left smaller hospitals isolated.
In the wake of delayed cancer diagnoses arising from incorrectly read scans at University Hospital Kerry in 2018, Mr Brassil said the South South West Hospital Group group “consistently failed to provide the support the hospital needs to deliver the best possible level of care”.
He said this was at “the root of the scandal”.
In Waterford, Matt Shanahan, spokesman for lobby group Health Equality for the South East, shares Mr Brassil’s view. He too believes University Hospital Waterford is being left behind within the wider group.
He says Waterford is not well-represented on the board of the South South West Hospital Group group, which he says is over-populated by people affiliated with Cork, with its university and with its hospitals.
Just one of the 10 members appointed in November 2017 following a public appointment service campaign is from Waterford: solicitor Helen Bowe O’Brien.
Mr Shanahan, co-opted as an Independent to Waterford City and County Council in January this year, says they put forward the name of a potential board member with “excellent credentials” before the summer, but heard nothing back from Health Minister Simon Harris other than that no decision had been made.
University Hospital Waterford has been making national headlines on and off for the past number of years. This week, its Department of Psychiatry is in the crosshairs after distressing photographs emerged from its overcrowded inpatient unit, of patients lying on chairs and on the floor.
The Psychiatric Nurses Association says it has been highlighting overcrowding at the 44-bed unit since 2017. Its spokesman, Michael Hayes, says that when Waterford and Wexford acute mental health services amalgamated in 2010, appropriate resources were not put in place. Overcrowding in the acute unit, is causing patients and staff “intolerable distress”.
The service is at a point where it is “dangerous”.
In May, University Hospital Waterford hit the headlines for equally disturbing reasons — ‘Dead bodies stored on floor of Waterford mortuary’.
A letter, signed by four of the hospital’s consultants, sent to Gerry O’Dwyer, chief executive of the South South West Hospital Group, described how, as a result of inadequate body storage and refrigeration facilities, “most bodies lie on trolleys in corridors, often leaking body fluids onto the floor”.
The consultants said that as far back as 2004, the mortuary had been deemed unfit for purpose. The consultants wrote in both December 2018 and the following March to the South South West Hospital Group. The group later issued a statement saying it had “no evidence” to substantiate the consultants’ claims.
The group also said a replacement mortuary was a “priority”.
At the time, Mr Shanahan questioned “the bona fides of this administration to deliver anything of substance to University Hospital Waterford”.
He said the hospital group alignment for University Hospital Waterford and the southeast within the South South West Hospital Group “has been a disaster for regional healthcare management and access”.
“The mortuary situation bears frightening resemblance to the southeast cardiac care issue where an absolute proven need is being ignored,” he said.
The lack of an around-the-clock cath lab at University Hospital Waterford — which forms part of the hospital’s cardiac department — has long been the major bugbear of the Health Equality for the South East lobby group and a significant political issue in the south east, spawning numerous marches where thousands have turned out in support, including at the South East Broken Hearts rally where families and friends of people who died because they didn’t make it to the cath lab in Cork on time, spoke out.
University Hospital Waterford has a 39-hour cath lab service where diagnostic and interventional procedures are conducted.
The service operates 8am to 8pm Monday to Friday, but doctors are concerned about the risk to emergency heart-attack patients who present outside those hours and who have to travel to hospitals outside the region.
The hospital’s general manager, Grace Rothwell, met councillors last week to update them on progress at the hospital.
Green Party councillor Marc Ó Cathasaigh, subsequently tweeted: “The overall message is of a hospital management trying to make not enough stretch at as far as possible. Circa 200 unfilled posts across the hospital, a new wing only partially opened (staffing issues again) and a mortuary service under review.
“However, for Waterford and the southeast, 24/7 cardiac care is the burning issue. Grace was entirely clear: around-the-clock cardiac care is ‘at least’ two years away.
Mr Ó Cathasaigh’s tweet flies in the face of what Mr Shanahan says Independent Alliance TD John Halligan, from Waterford, said publicly after he met Health Minister Simon Harris in September 2018: a second cath lab would be delivered within 17 months.
On Friday, Mr Halligan took to Facebook to say he had “made it clear to the South South West hospital group that the mooted two- year turnaround on delivery of the second lab is not acceptable”.
He said the planning application had been submitted “ahead of schedule” this week.
Mr Shanahan says the HSE is proposing to close the existing cath lab for 12 weeks for an upgrade. A modular cath lab providing backup cannot perform interventional work, so where emergency patients will go during a 12-closure is unclear.
Mr Shanahan says University Hospital Waterford has “not functioned well” with the South South West Hospital Group. “I would say executive management has not delivered,” he said.
The ongoing commitment Dr Landers had hoped for as part of a hospital group appears not to have panned out as planned.