By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
The HSE chief has said the pressure on hospitals is expected to get worse over coming weeks, as he apologised to people enduring long waits in emergency departments across the country.
Stephen Mulvany said the pressure facing hospitals “is very much a patient safety concern”, and asked people to bear with medics as they tackle high numbers of patients.
The HSE said the average wait at emergency departments wait is 8.3 hours, and the average for people who are admitted to EDs is 13.8 hours.
Despite the number of people waiting on trolleys falling from a record of 931 on Tuesday to 639 on Thursday, attendances at EDs remain at a high level.
HSE interim chief executive Stephen Mulvany accepted it’s “not good enough” that patients are waiting for hours on trolleys or chairs, and he offered his apologies to patients.
“The key issue obviously is, it is the sickest patients first, so we are trying to get to the sickest patients, and other patients will wait longer,” he said.
Asked if the HSE was aware of any patients dying as a result of long waits, Mr Mulvany replied: “I’m not going to comment on individual cases. As adverse events are reported, they’re fully investigated and lessons have to be learned.
“But it’s fair to say that every health system in the world has avoidable, preventable deaths and Ireland is no different in that context. And we know that over-congestion increases the risk of harm to patients.”
Mr Mulvany said he was asking a range of staff, including hospital consultants, to work at weekends to help alleviate the pressures on hospitals.
He said arrangements are in place to compensate workers if they cover weekends, including overtime payment or days in lieu.
“It’s not a new thing, it’s a standard thing. If they want to replace that with toil (time off in lieu), that’s an open discussion.”
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly called for such a change to encourage faster discharges from hospital, but the proposal has been opposed by consultants.
“Consultants are on call 24/7, often practising over and above recommended levels, but the reality is there simply aren’t enough of us to meet increased demand,” the Irish Hospital Consultants Association said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We are still working with 40 per cent less consultant staffing in Ireland, compared to the EU average.”
Mr Mulvany said on Thursday: “This week, we’ve decided that we need to increase the level of weekend working, moving more towards what people may refer to as ‘7 over 7’ care, so that we increase the amount of discharge from our hospitals at the weekend, including having additional on-site presence of senior clinical decision makers and other support staff to make that happen, again across the community and hospitals.
“So that’s a short-term measure. That’s a measure for the next two to three weeks, particularly for the next two weekends, and we’ll review it.
“Measures like that are not sustainable, they are clearly exceptional measures at times of extreme pressure, but that is what’s necessary at this stage.”
— HSE Ireland (@HSELive) January 5, 2023
Eileen Whelan, national lead of the HSE’s Covid-19 Test, Trace & Vaccination Programme, said the rate of healthcare workers who are fully vaccinated against the virus is “low”.
“There is still more work to do and we continue to encourage and ensure healthcare workers across all services have every opportunity to get their vaccine appointments,” she said.
Dr John Cuddihy, interim director of public health at the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, said that there had been a “very deep, rapid increase” in the notification of flu cases over a short period of time, which has led to an increase in hospitalisations.
“This winter season, it’s particularly difficult to model the trajectory of influenza and Covid because this season is unlike any season that we’ve seen before.
“But looking at the trajectory of cases notified over the past number of weeks, not just looking at the recent weeks, and comparing that with the pattern in previous influenza seasons, I think it’s likely that we will see significant and sustained increase week-on-week in cases notified of influenza, and as a consequence in hospitalisations, over at least the next three to four weeks.”
Uptake of the flu vaccine is 74 per cent among over-65s, 24 per cent among 50 to 64-year-olds, 9.3 per cent among 18 to 49-year-olds and 12.7 per cent in young people aged two to 17.