The pandemic has been “scary” for staff and patients but it has convinced government of the urgent need to invest in health services, a leading hospital consultant has said.
Dr Catherine Motherway, a consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine at University Hospital Limerick, was one of the first to warn last year of Ireland’s bed shortages in Intensive Care Units (ICU).
Early in 2020, there were just 225 ICU beds in the country.
Speaking at the annual general meeting of the Irish Medical Organisation, Dr Motherway recalled the dread within her profession when Covid began to sweep through the community.
“We were, in the intensive care community, actually very, very, very scared. We witnessed what happened in northern Italy which was a well-resourced healthcare system.
“We were very scared, not necessarily for ourselves but for our patients that we might not be able to treat.”
Now following recruitment, there will be 320 permanent beds by year’s end, she said, working towards a target of 500.
“You can’t do it instantly — it takes about six months to open an ICU bed if you start from scratch,” she said.
Recruitment is “a significant issue” for the HSE, she said.
“They do now realise the need. This notion of austerity and saving money by not spending has finally dawned on them — you cannot do this,” she said.
She described having to separate sick patients from their families, saying: “It was just awful actually, that aspect of it.”
Other health professionals told the conference of the enormity of the challenges facing them over the last year.
Public Health Specialist Dr Mary O’ Riordan compared working in the pandemic to “building a bridge in a tornado”.
Dr Maitiu O’Faoláin, a GP in Meath, recalled going to a Woodies DIY supplier to buy plastic gardening masks when the pandemic hit.
“It was scary. I remember sitting down with my wife at one stage, she’s a GP with us and we had to decide who would go to work and who wouldn’t. We had no PPE,” he said.
Now medical director of the vaccine hub at The Helix in Dublin, he predicted a surge in vaccinations as supply increases. The Helix has done thousands of vaccinations, including 2,500 on Easter Sunday.
He said the progress so far indicates an estimate of 1m doses per month could be met once supply holds up.
“It is easily done. The HSE has to do its part, they have to step up and match what general practice has done in their big centres. The potential is enormous,” he said.
Professor Brendan Kelly, a consultant psychiatrist at Tallaght University Hospital, said the impact on mental health of Covid is still emerging.
“There is now very clear evidence that people who have Covid have an increased rate of psychological disorder afterwards — approximately one-third will have a psychiatric or psychological problem diagnosed in the next six months.”
Prof Kelly, a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, quoted a study published in the Lancet medical journal showing the rates of psychosis are double those of people with the flu.
Psychiatrists in Cork and Dublin have noted increased attendance from children and teens with eating disorders and people suffering from self-harm, he said.
Dr Madeleine Ní Dhálaigh said there is an urgent need to provide better access to affordable or free counselling.
The GP said “the working poor” do not qualify for a medical card which brings free access but still cannot afford prohibitive private counselling.
She said in some areas GPs rely on charities to provide mental health support for teens.
The Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon said: “We received complaints from children directly which is an unusual thing for us …a lot of teenagers were contacting us particularly last year in relation to the Leaving Cert.”
He said “over 50 contacts” per weekend was not unusual during that period of uncertainty.