Hospital trolley figures have increased throughout 2018 and peaked recently with 714 people on trolleys nationwide due to recent inclement weather. Andrew Carroll investigates
Patients awaiting beds in Irish hospitals reached record figures again last week. According to figures released on March 12, a recorded 714 patients were required to wait on trolleys in acute hospitals nationwide.
The number of patients on trolleys is said to be the highest on record, according to the statistics provided by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation [INMO].
INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha said “This upsurge was predictable and the INMO warned against inaction or insufficient action in the wake of Storm Emma.”
The confluence of two cold weather fronts – Storm Emma and the Beast from the East – lead to icy conditions and a temperature drop that caused many to visit their local hospitals putting pressure on an already overstretched system. Trolley figures rose to 3,112 over the week of the storm. However, “each daily total from that week has been surpassed by the extraordinary figure of 714,” said Ms Sheaghdha.
Billy Kelleher, Fianna Fáil Spokesperson for Health, described these latest figures as “absolutely deplorable”.
“Last week was the worst week ever experienced for emergency department overcrowding. Today we are seeing the worst day ever. It’s truly shocking.”
The trolley crisis has been ongoing for a number of years with staff shortages and a lack of funds leading to ward closures and a limited availability of hospital beds. This leaves many patients left waiting on trolleys in corridors or chairs in the emergency department. A statement from the Department of Health warned against going to hospital if the illness or injury was not serious, stating that: “We are asking the public where possible to attend their GP or out-of-hours GP services in the first instance.”
“The government has a duty to provide the best quality of care”
The case is worst in the emergency departments where waiting times can often be in excess of eight hours. The Department of Health’s statement went on to say: “Emergency department patients are seen in order of priority which may result in patients with minor illnesses or injuries experiencing delays.”
Though hospital staff and HSE civil servants are overworked and understaffed it is the general public that suffer most in this crisis. “Many people find seeking medical attention stressful enough, without the added anxiety of having to sleep on a corridor and the worry of when you will be given a bed,” said Trinity medical student Kat Hughes in relation to the trolley crisis. “The problem is multifactorial though, there is no one-stop solution. We have too few wards and beds, and where there is sufficient bed space, there are not enough nurses to have the wards open.”
There is great political and public will towards dealing with the problem but staff shortages are not so easily fixed. In January of 2018 trolley figures hit a high of 677 due to the onset of winter flu season. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in January that no Irish patient should have to “face the indignity and the risk to their health that comes with prolonged trolley waits”.
The problems do not stop with staff shortages however. Homelessness and the lack of appropriate home care packages and rehabilitation for elderly patients is another problem facing the beleaguered Irish health care system. Ms Hughes said: “It is the government’s responsibility to increase accessibility to home care packages, community nurses and good quality homeless accommodation in order to keep patients flowing through the hospital system.”
It is clear that both medical staff and the Irish public believe there is more to be done. For now the problems are not instantly surmountable with homelessness and staff shortages severely limiting what can be done. Cuts to the health service have contributed to a long running health crisis and need to be addressed. Ms Hughes concluded her statement by saying: “The government has a duty to provide the best quality of care to the most amount of people”.