Consultants have demanded the hospital overcrowding crisis be declared a “national emergency”, as the numbers on trolleys hit 760 yesterday during the worst day on record.
The stark admission echoes a similar declaration from then health minister Mary Harney in 2006, who promised that every resource would be put in place to ensure no-one would have to wait more than six hours after assessment.
Despite an annual budget of €16bn, doctors compared conditions in emergency departments yesterday like those in the “third world”, with the numbers waiting for beds breaking records for a second day in a row.
The vice president of the Irish Hospital Consultants Association said it was time we “just put our hands up and declare a national emergency”.
Laura Durcan, a consultant rheumatologist at Beaumont Hospital, said that, with the billions spent on healthcare, the system should be far better. She said the same problems arise every year, despite Ireland’s healthcare needs being “completely predictable”.
“It’s like trying to put out a fire with a teacup,” said Dr Durcan.
We’re so far away from that being a success story that I think we should just put our hands up and declare a national emergency.
The hospitals worst affected were again Cork University Hospital (CUH), University Hospital Limerick, and St Vincent’s University Hospital in Dublin. The problems in emergency departments have been exacerbated by the flu outbreak with visitor restrictions in place across the country.
Conor Deasy, consultant in emergency medicine at CUH, said the appalling conditions in which staff were being forced to work was putting lives at risk.
“Right now, in terms of what I am seeing in the emergency department, I haven’t witnessed the likes of that when I have worked in the third world. They are third-world conditions,” said Dr Deasy.
“We know that treating patients in these overcrowded conditions is associated with loss of life. There is no question about that. The literature is categorical about that and we witness it in our day-to-day activities.”
He said that the solution was simple — more beds.
“The magic wand is beds, beds, beds,” he saud. “CUH does not have the capacity it needs to deliver the care it is mandated and it is required to deliver.”
General secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), Phil Ní Shéaghdha, said the crisis required “immediate political intervention”.
The INMO urged Health Minister Simon Harris to “grasp the nettle” and declare a major incident, cancel elective surgery, and approve recruitment for the worst-hit hospitals.
Mr Harris said he did not think the analysis of the situation by the INMO was fair and nurses knew that significant extra capacity was needed, both in terms of beds and staff.
“We’re doing both,” he said, pointing out that there were 500 more nurses working in the health service now than there was in 2018.
“We have significant overcrowding throughout the year as well so it is no longer just a situation that happens at a certain time of the year.
“We know what we need to do here — more capacity in terms of beds and staff; reform in terms of work practices including paying our consultants more but asking that we look at things like 24-hour cover seven days a week.”
Mr Harris said it was a “very difficult period” but he was genuinely satisfied that the people working in the health service at all levels, including the most senior levels in the HSE, were doing all they could.
While more nurses were working in the health service than there were 12 months ago, rules were required in relation to recruitment, he said.
“There does have to be an alignment between the budget that you have and recruitment,” said Mr Harris.
Otherwise the taxpayer ends up asking ‘why has the minister for health run over budget again?
Mr Harris said they would listen very carefully to the INMO and others on how they could “streamline” the recruitment process.
Asked about the call by the INMO to cancel elective surgery, he said no politician and no trade union would decide on clinical matters.
He apologised to patients and families affected by the extreme overcrowding.
“Nobody would ever want to see anybody in this situation,” he said. “I am focused on taking action. I think that’s what’s important.”