State of our health service: Harris should take advice from medic

WHEN former Taoiseach Brian Cowen was minister for health, he famously compared the post to Angola’s notorious war zone. After only four months in office, the present incumbent, Simon Harris, might be inclined to agree with him.

A perfect storm is brewing with demands for health services increasing right across the board. More than 500,000 people are on hospital waiting lists, a new record in the health service. The longest queue is at Galway University Hospital where over 11,300 people are waiting. The Health Service Executive is chronically short of both money and nurses, who are the backbone of the country’s hospitals but are now leaving the country in droves for jobs offering better pay and conditions and, crucially, less stress in hospitals ranging from the UK to Australia.

Rightly or wrongly, the executive is perceived in the popular mind as being top-heavy with layer upon layer of managers in a bewildering array of managerial structures. This is partly a hangover from the setting up of the HSE in 2005 when every job was guaranteed by the government of the day in an enormously costly consensus-ploy aimed at wresting power from a proliferation of health boards, all operating as independent fiefdoms, with the aim collecting them under one umbrella. The present head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien, has since compared the way the organisation was established over a decade ago to a “high-speed car crash”.

Announcing yet another set of initiatives aimed at reducing hospital waiting lists, perhaps the most daunting challenge Mr Harris is likely to encounter , declared yesterday that it was a “significant mistake” to deactivate the National Treatment Purchase Fund. Among other things, the purpose of this scheme was to bring together and certify information on people waiting in the never ending queues for treatment in public hospitals. Ironically, the fund was run down during James Reilly’s tenure as one of two Fine Gael health ministers in the last government. A former GP, he lost his Dáil seat in the recent general election.

Outlining the bones of a five-point plan (to be fleshed out today) during RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Harris outlined a number of waiting list initiatives, including what he called sustained investment in waiting list initiatives ranging from gearing up the purchase fund scheme plus ring-fencing €1m for 3,000 endoscopies, a procedure check a person’s digestive In a scathing reaction to the Harris plan, consultant ophthalmologist Prof Michael O’Keefe, of both the Mater and Temple Street Children’s hospitals in Dublin, described as “chaotic” the situation in the country’s public hospitals. “I have heard it all before” he said, adding that nothing had been solved. In reality, the expert was echoing not just consultant often at loggerheads with government but also of a public grown tired of politicians producing plans to cure Ireland’s ailing heath service. If paper plans worked , the crisis in the health service would resolved long ago.

Prof O’Keefe’s blunt advice to Mr Harris was to first tackle the problems in hospitals and shake them up. He should take that advice.

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