A leading nursing union boss has branded the current overcrowding situation at University Hospital Galway’s emergency department as “critical” and “very dangerous” for frontline workers trying to provide safe care for patients.
Regina Durcan, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation’s industrial relations officer in the west,
is calling for the bed capacity issue at the regional hospital to be reviewed and additional nursing and frontline staff to be recruited.
“It’s not good enough to crisis manage on a day to day basis,” she says. “This is a very critical and very risky situation for frontline workers. The majority of these patients [on trolleys in A&E] are critically ill and need a good standard of care. Staff are under stress and it is manifesting itself physically and mentally. They are trying to provide a safe standard of care in an intolerable and horrendous environment. Patients cannot complain, they are so vulnerable.
“It’s all about maintaining and keeping within budget, safety is not given a high enough priority. Nurses tell me that they come home from work and say ‘Thank God nothing happened to any of the patients in my care today.’”
Ms Durcan’s comments come as her union revealed that the number of patients on trolleys at UHG has rocketed in the past seven years. There were 1,654 patients awaiting beds at the regional hospital in 2006 compared to 3,261 last year.
The overcrowding crisis at the facility’s emergency department has worsened with 22 patients on trolleys and 10 on beds, trolleys or chairs in inpatient wards/units above the stated complement on Monday.
There were 27 patients on trolleys in A&E and 17 were inappropriately accommodated in wards on Tuesday while 16 patients were on trolleys yesterday (Wednesday) in the ED while 14 fell into the second category. Figures for last week told a similar story, according to the nursing union’s trolley and ward watch service.
The HSE West attributes the increased overcrowding to a rise in the number of people suffering with flu and other seasonal illnesses common at this time of year.
A spokesperson says non urgent surgery has been deferred due to the issue. No figures were available in relation to the number of procedures cancelled.
In a statement the health authority says the emergency department continues to be very busy.
“This time of year is traditionally a busy period for hospitals and brings an anticipated increase in activity in emergency departments around the country.
“Hospital management and clinical directors continue to take all immediate actions necessary to deal with the increase in demand for their services.”
The statement continued that measures being put in place to deal with the issue include:-
· Deferral of non urgent surgery
· Ensuring there are no unnecessary delays for necessary diagnostic tests for patients in our emergency departments
· All available bed capacity is being utilised.”
Meanwhile Ms Durcan insists the overcrowding crisis in Irish hospitals must not continue.
An analysis of her union’s trolley and ward watch service, which measures hospital overcrowding, reveals a two per cent rise in numbers for last year and a 22 per cent increase since 2006.
She describes this as “very disappointing”. “It is accepted that hospital special delivery units are working hard to reduce the numbers on trolleys in emergency departments. However the problem is now compounded as, in some hospitals, patients, on a daily basis, are being placed on chairs, trolleys and extra beds on already full wards/units - a practice which is unsafe for patients and makes it almost impossible for INMO members to practise safe care.”
She stresses that despite the spotlight being on A&E overcrowding for almost 10 years, hospitals still struggle with the issue on a daily basis.
“There are 2,131 beds closed across the country and 5,100 nursing/midwifery posts have been cut in the past five years across all services including the community. In addition, the health service budget has been cut by €619 million for 2014.
“It is difficult to see how this crisis, which has been ongoing since late 2004, can be solved without major investment. It was deemed a national emergency in 2006 but the numbers have increased by 22 per cent since then.”
Cllr Padraig Conneely, the city mayor and chairperson of the HSE West’s regional health forum, says it is difficult to find an “instant solution” to the ongoing overcrowding issue.
“There is a massive upsurge in attendance at A&Es at this time of year - every second person has flu, myself included. This is a big ongoing issue which is almost impossible to deal with. The way I look at it it is very very hard to budget for people getting sick and emergencies. I think the health service should be exempt from cutbacks which affect patient care, they should not happen to frontline services. I’m sure there are lots of other areas in the hospital where they can save money. I’ve said this repeatedly. You can’t deal with patients as an economic issue, it’s often a life or death one.”
He says “good” strides have been made at the hospital in terms of taking people off waiting lists but this “spike” in patient numbers during winter is having a knock-on effect on other areas. Operations are being cancelled and more pressure is being put on staff and patients.
“The hospital is trying to pull out all the stops. Basically there are not enough beds and personnel to cater for this surge. Maybe there should be more contingency plans.”