Capacity for outpatient clinics and procedures is down by 50% in some hospitals due to social distancing, MLAs have been told.
Virtual clinics are being used to help meet demand as non Covid-19 treatment services are stepped up after lockdown, trust chief executives told the health committee.
Seamus McGoran, from the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, said feedback from patients indicated many preferred the virtual experience to having to come into a hospital setting.
“Even if we had all of our staff available to any particular service and that team did not have to treat Covid patients, capacity will most likely be reduced by 50% or, at best, 30% due to social distancing, safe use of PPE and a number of other factors,” he said.
“So Covid-19 is having a huge impact on productivity at a time when we need to actually increase our capacity.”
He said outpatient services were currently operating at 55% capacity within his trust.
“It will take several months, who knows it might take until we actually have a vaccine, before we could get back fully up and running at normal levels and that is a major concern for all of us,” he said.
“The waiting lists have already been lengthy in the past, pre-Covid, and they’re creeping up, as we would have expected, because of our reduced capacity.
“So we’re probably operating at around about 55% of our outpatient capacity.”
Virtual consultation isn't the answer to everything, but used in the right way it's made a huge difference to how we've copedDr Anne Kilgallen, Western Health and Social Care Trust
He said the trust had scheduled some clinics and appointments for the evenings and weekend to help see more patients but he acknowledged this had an impact on staff.
“It’s difficult to ask staff to do lots of extra work,” he said.
“Some are prepared to do that, but they’ve had an exhausting four months.
“They need their break, and we need to be very sensitive to try to get a balance between building our services, and getting our staff the break they need.”
Mr McGoran said the trust currently had a 12% absence rate among staff – 8% of whom were unwell and 4% were unable to work due to being in at-risk groups in respect of Covid-19.
Dr Anne Kilgallen, chief executive at the Western Health and Social Care Trust, said those percentages were mirrored in her organisation.
She said virtual clinics were helping the trust meet some of the challenges presented by social distancing.
“Virtual consultation isn’t the answer to everything, but used in the right way it’s made a huge difference to how we’ve coped,” she said.
It is about scaling back up again and taking a risk stratification approach to the people that we need to see most urgently and then right through to our routine servicesJennifer Welsh, Northern Health and Social Care Trust
“And I think it will continue to make a difference to us into the future because it’s so much more immediate, in particular if you’ve got the diagnostics, it can be delivered in the home to the individual, so there are a lot of factors needed for it to work well, but it certainly is a significant contributor, or will be a significant contributor.”
Jennifer Welsh, chief executive at the Northern Health and Social Care Trust, said priority was being given to patients with most need.
“It is about scaling back up again and taking a risk stratification approach to the people that we need to see most urgently and then right through to our routine services,” she said.
“But it is our intention to get all our services back running again.
“I think there’s been a huge amount of really good work done in relation to, for example, virtual clinics and group sessions.
“That’s not suitable for everybody. We are very mindful of not everybody would have access to the technology that would allow them to attend a virtual clinic, so we’re mindful of where we cannot do that and it’s not appropriate.
“Also, in relation to first outpatient assessments, sometimes those people do need to be seen face-to-face, but then you can maybe move to a virtual session beyond that.
“So it’s with the intention of getting things back up and running, albeit maybe running in a slightly different way, where that’s appropriate to do so.”