As talks continue to avert a nurses strike, embattled Health Minister Leo Varadkar has admitted the headache of emergency department overcrowding will take another five years to resolve.
On RTÉ radio, Mr Varadkar said it would take a five-year programme of investment “in primary care, social care, and hospitals” to end the crisis of patients on trolleys, a figure that stood at 427 yesterday, down from 558 at the wee kend.
Sinn Féin urged Mr Varadkar to step down if he felt he was not up to the job.
Defending his record, the health minister said they were going to have to build on the achievements of last year, which included the appointment of 750 additional nurses and the opening of 200 out of 300 promised additional beds.
However he admitted to being “nowhere near where we should be”, despite the “enormous efforts that have gone in over the past year”.
Earlier in the day, emergency department consultant Dr Peadar Gilligan, who works at Beaumont, Dublin, one of the hospitals worst-affected by the crisis, said they were being impeded in carrying out vital diagnostic tests by a lack of space and resources and that the situation was unsafe for patients.
“For example, I might have a patient who I consider may have a diagnosis of meningitis. It’s not unusual for me to have to wait for a number of hours for a trolley to become available and the space to become available to perform the lumbar puncture to confirm that diagnosis.
“It wouldn’t be unusual for us to have a patient with significant chest pain, where our concern is that of a possible heart attack, and we don’t have a trolley available to put the patient on. So, from the nurses’ and doctors’ perspective, that’s hugely concerning and, obviously, it’s concerning for the patients and their relatives, as well,” said Dr Gilligan.
Mr Varadkar conceded that was not a safe situation.
Meanwhile, strike committees of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) met yesterday to discuss next Thursday’s two-hour strike at seven emergency departments. It comes after nurses rejected a series of measures brokered by the Workplace Relations Commission, designed to address overcrowding, staffing and patient-safety issues in the departments.
General secretary Liam Doran said it would take a monumental move by the HSE to convince nurses they were committed to implementing new measures and to persuade them to call off the stoppages. Parties to the dispute are expected to engage at local level in the coming days, when management will be called on to convince nurses they have the ability and commitment to address emergency department overcrowding.
Mr Doran called for hospitals to be fined if they failed to implement appropriately their crisis protocols, known as escalation policies. Mr Varadkar said the special delivery unit would be visiting nine hospitals this weekend to audit whether escalation policies were being adhered to.
Beaumont Hospital and others in the Royal College of Surgeons Hospital group have issued a circular urging staff to cancel elective or non-urgent procedures due to the crisis.
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