Alison O'Connor


Alison O'Connor: The health service is sick, and Dr Varadkar has failed to cure it

There is strong evidence that the overcrowding that currently exists in our hospitals and emergency rooms results in people dying, writes Alison O'Connor

Alison O'Connor: The health service is sick, and  Dr Varadkar has failed to cure it

There is strong evidence that the overcrowding that currently exists in our hospitals and emergency rooms results in people dying, writes Alison O'Connor

A NUMBER of years ago, I was on a train from Cork to Dublin that was considerably behind schedule.

No explanation had been given to passengers, despite the long wait. Just as we were pulling into Heuston Station, the PA system burst into life and the following announcement was made:

“Iarnrod Éireann would like to apologise for the late arrival of this train into Heuston Station, Dublin. It is due to the train’s late departure from Kent Station, Cork.”

It was just this comparison that came to mind earlier this week, upon hearing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar blaming record trolley numbers in hospital emergency departments on our current outbreak of flu, and on a longer-term shortage of hospital beds.

As a frequent train traveller on that Cork-to-Dublin line, I can say that the rail service has improved and that delays are usually accompanied by a proper explanation. That is welcome.

However, when it comes to the failings of the health service, and Fine Gael, the party that has been in power now for a decade, the same old, same old keeps being shovelled out to us.

Despite this, health might not be a factor for many people in how they vote in the upcoming general election.

In the general election campaign of 2016, it was mid-February when Fine Gael launched what was described as its €2bn health manifesto.

It was acknowledged that day that it would take another five years before waiting times for a bed, for the vast majority of patients, would be reduced to six hours or less.

That modest ambition seems quaint in light of the carnage in our emergency departments now. I was present at that 2016 launch, where then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was joined by his Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar.

During that election campaign, in the midst of the whole ‘keep the recovery going’ sloganeering, and endless treatises on the newly introduced notion of the ‘fiscal space,’ Fine Gael came under little pressure over its lack of ambition for reform of the health service.

It was a lot different to the 2011 general election campaign, which had all the bells-and-whistles promises of universal healthcare and the ending of our hugely unfair, two-tier health system, and free GP care for all.

By 2016, Fine Gael remained somewhat wedded to universal healthcare (a policy subsequently cast to the wind), and the dismantling of the HSE (a plan that met a similar fate).

In 2016, Varadkar had his best bedside manner for the assembled media when issuing those reassurances on waiting times for people on trollies.

Yet, here we are, three years later, with the health system at breaking point and with record numbers waiting to be admitted to hospitals. (Trollies are no longer the worst that can happen; a number of patients have to wait on chairs.)

It is, as Taoiseach Varadkar pointed out, flu season. As a result, far more people are acutely ill. So, it’s worth taking a wider view. Let’s look at the results of the latest National Inpatient Experience Survey, which was published before Christmas.

It showed that just 30% of people are admitted to a ward within the HSE’s six-hour target time. Of the 12,000 patients questioned, 4% had to wait over 48 hours before being admitted.

That’s some election-pledge progress, isn’t it? The promises of 2016 have not been delivered.

But as we face into a general election, we have a health system that is effectively paralysed, with cancer treatments, and other crucial surgeries, having to be put off. Of course, there have been improvements, and many of them, but the reforms needed, and the extra beds required, are old news and no reason can justify the delays in implementing the necessary changes. Sláintecare, the 2017 report on reforming our health system, estimated that we needed between 2,500 and 9,000 extra beds over the next decade.

In the meantime, public confidence in the system has plummeted.

On Wednesday night, a family member of mine attended an out-of-hours private clinic for a hand injury that needed an X-ray. He paid his money and was home within two hours.

But while in the waiting room, he overheard the family of an elderly gentleman, clearly very worried about his health. An X-ray showed the poor man had double pneumonia.

The family was shocked and worried, but my family member said that what was most notable was how utterly devastated, and visibly frightened, they were at the news that they would now have to bring this sick man, who was in his eighties, to a public hospital emergency department.

WHY wouldn’t they be frightened? A&E consultants have repeatedly warned that there is strong evidence that the type of overcrowding that currently exists in our hospitals and emergency rooms results in people dying.

It’s all too easy to imagine how this might be the case.

The bigger concern is that even with a change of government, there is no strong sense that an administration with Fianna Fáil in charge would have the mettle, and the political courage, to introduce the changes so badly needed.

However, when it comes to health reform, and ten years of failing at it, Fine Gael really is a busted flush.

It will take serious political cojones for Fine Gael, just as they did in 2016, to have a special launch for the health section of their manifesto and to tell us, with straight faces, that this is the party to solve our health problems.

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