The biggest stumbling block to opening 300 extra hospital beds before the end of the year to ease chronic overcrowding will be the ongoing staffing crisis, nurses have warned.
“The reality is that the health system at this time cannot staff the existing beds and services,” said Liam Doran, the general secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.
“Despite all of the commitments over the past number of months and years, the recent summer has been the worst on record for overcrowding in the country’s emergency departments.”
Leo Varadkar, the health minister, admitted yesterday that opening the 300 beds before the end of the year would be “challenging”.
He said the opening up of some of the beds would require capital works, which would take time, and there were also difficulties in recruiting staff, particularly nurses.
However, Mr Varadkar, who was speaking after a two-hour meeting of the emergency department taskforce implementation group, said the private sector could also be used, if necessary.
Mr Varadkar also said he was not satisfied with the progress made despite the allocation of €74m in additional funding this year.
He said extra funding had not had the impact on hospital overcrowding that had been expected or hoped for so additional action was needed.
Mr Varadkar said there would be a focus on changing work practices in hospitals, particularly among consultants.
He said there was evidence in a number of hospitals of patients not being discharged at weekends.
However, ensuring there was best practice across the board was not something that could be achieved by the end of the year, or by the time a general election was called.
The ministers also said that it was often the case that hospitals who had exceeded their budget had also failed to meet targets for out-patient appointments and elective surgery.
“So, instead of rewarding them, they are going to be penalised and their budgets will be transferred to other hospitals who will do the work for them.”
The minister was also asked to comment on the 321 patients who were on trolleys in hospital emergency departments and wards throughout the country yesterday, according to the INMO’s Trolley Watch.
“The official figures we have this morning is about 260 people on trolleys, either in an emergency department or in a ward,” said Mr Varadkar.
“And, as is always the case, that number will come down significantly during the day because that is the pattern.”
Mr Doran said he regretted that in the heat of “this very difficult situation” the minister had disputed the INMO’s trolley count.
“I think if we are down to saying 260 is better than 321, well then I think we have lost sight of the goal.”
The INMO is to hold a national meeting of emergency department nurse representatives on Monday, October 5, to discuss hospital overcrowding. Nurses will assess whether the additional measures announced by the minister, including the 300 additional beds, will be enough to alleviate the situation.
Mr Doran said all of the hospital managers have been trying to recruit more nurses but all were acknowledging that they were having minimal response.
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