AMBULANCES were forced to wait over an hour on average at two Cork hospitals in September last year before getting back on the road, it has been revealed.
Ambulance turnaround times involve the amount of time from the ambulance arrival time to when the crew declares the readiness of the ambulance to accept another call. The HSE target turnaround time is 30 minutes.
However, information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the average ambulance turnaround time increased nationally from around 44 minutes in January 2021 to more than 54 minutes in September.
Both the Mercy University Hospital (MUH) and Cork University Hospital (CUH) saw their average ambulance turnaround times increase past the hour mark between January and September last year.
Average turnaround times at MUH increased from 58 minutes in January to an hour and 25 minutes in September, while CUH saw its turnaround time increase from around 57 minutes to one hour and 22 minutes in the same period.
Bantry General Hospital meanwhile saw a slight decrease in its ambulance turnaround time during the nine month period, with ambulances taking 43 minutes on average to get back on the road in September.
University Hospital Kerry boasted the longest turnaround time nationally in January 2021 at one hour and five minutes, and again in September 2021 at one hour and 29 minutes.
Sinn Féin TD for Cork South Central, Donnchadh O’Laoghaire, said the increase in turnaround times at hospitals highlights the pressure the health system has been under in recent months.
“That is a concern and you can imagine why that is the case with hospitals under severe strain.
“We need to do what we can to reduce the strain on our hospitals over the coming months.
“Hospitals are understaffed and under severe pressure - they need to be better resourced and supported,” he added.
“If we can reduce the strain on hospitals, and ensure they have adequate staff and resources, that will ensure greater efficiency in ambulance drop off times.
“That would mean paramedic crews are not left waiting outside hospitals, and they can get back out on the road ready to respond to other urgent calls.
“Ambulance crews are already under severe strain and people can be left waiting a long time for ambulances to arrive, through no fault of the crews themselves.
“Hospitals need to be supported to reduce these turnaround times to ensure ambulance crews can get back out on the road in a timely fashion to serve the community.”
The South/South West Hospital Group was contacted for comment, and responded saying it was a matter for the National Ambulance Service.
A spokesperson for The HSE said: “Emergency Departments always prioritise and treat the sickest patients first, by means of a standardised and well validated process known as triage.
“Emergency Department staff work collaboratively with colleagues in the National Ambulance Service to ensure all patients receive the emergency care they require by both ambulance and ED staff “Since the Pandemic began, NAS has experienced longer offload delays at Hospital Emergency Departments,” the HSE spokesperson added.
“Infection Prevention and Control Measures (IPC) have increased the length of time dealing with patients resulting in longer call durations.
“NAS and Hospital Emergency Department staff work together to ensure patients are transferred to hospital care as quickly and as safely as possible.
“While some ambulances have experienced delays in transferring patients to Emergency Department care, it is important to note that escalation policies are in place between the National Ambulance Service and Emergency Departments to manage any delays in patient transfers and to ensure that ambulances are available to respond to life threatening emergency calls as they arise at all times.”
A spokesperson for MUH said that ED presentations at the hospital are increasing and are now at pre-Covid-19 levels.
“From January 2021 to date, there has been an increase in ambulance presentations to the hospital and this situation has been mirrored in other hospitals nationally.” One in four attendees at the hospital’s ED presented via ambulance in 2021, with the hospital experiencing around 6,500 ambulance presentations during the year - around 125 per week.
“At peak times ambulance delays occur,” the spokesperson explained.
“Regrettably, this [is] a result of increased ED activity and diminished hospital bed capacity as a consequence of Covid-19 admissions and an increase in the acuity and fragility of patients attending the ED.
“When delays occur, hospital management liaises closely with the NAS to address these in a timely manner.
“The Ambulance Turnaround Times KPI is monitored closely and the hospital has seen improvements.
“The hospital has mechanisms to assess and address the acuity of the patient’s condition while an ambulance is waiting, and Covid-19 pathways are in place for rapid and safe access to the ED for patients and staff.
“MUH has also introduced remote access check in for NAS to protect NAS staff from having to navigate Covid-19 clinical areas.
“Patient care is a priority at MUH and hospital management would like to stress that the clinical needs of all patients presenting to the Emergency Department are cared for,” the spokesperson concluded.