Suffering of elderly on trolleys sends chilling message to health chief
Published 14/05/2016 | 02:30
Beach-weather temperatures may have hit almost 22C yesterday but there was no respite for the 343 long-suffering patients across the country who endured hours on trolleys.
In fact, yesterday must have proved chilling for new Health Minister Simon Harris.
The long-delayed HSE performance report for February laid bare how 2,700 patients aged over 75 languished on trolleys for more than 24 hours during another chaotic month in emergency departments as overcrowding escalated.
This was the all-too depressing scenario on the month we went to the polls. It followed the extra €117m in funding pumped into the health service in a desperate attempt to relieve pressures over the previous year.
In the meantime, thousands of cancelled operations have seen public patient waiting lists for surgery and outpatient clinics soar to more than 500,000. The HSE is now facing a €500m deficit.
So what is Mr Harris to do? The one mistake he should not make is to sell us the dream of some panacea which will take years to materialise.
There is little toleration for any more distraction.
We have already been down that cul-de-sac with former Health Minister James Reilly, who kept us waiting three years for a White Paper on universal health insurance. It was supposed to be the blueprint for an end to the two-tier system.
In the meantime, the key areas of hospital beds, staffing and changing work practices stalled or deteriorated.
Wards were closed to save money and newly-recruited hospital consultants' and nurses' salaries were cut.
When Leo Varadkar took over, and the unaffordable cost of universal health insurance was revealed, the health service was back to square one.
The new cross-party proposal to set up a committee, with a tight deadline, to try to work out a 10-year plan for the health service is welcome and overdue.But it cannot become the next big idea to divert attention from the urgent needs of thousands of people who are in increasing queues for care.
The Government's €15m fund, to be used to outsource some of the longest waiters for treatment in private hospitals, will just amount to very limited sticking plaster.
Mr Harris will have to come up with some solution to the failure to attract so many hospital consultants to vacant jobs.
The failure to fill so many specialist posts is fuelling bottlenecks and is having an impact on patient safety.
The HSE report yesterday cited a lack of urologists for contributing to worrying figures showing only half the men with suspected prostate cancer are being seen in rapid-access clinics in the recommended time.
In Limerick, just 20pc of clinics are meeting the timeline.
Several posts for child and adolescent psychiatrists were advertised last year and drew little or no applicants. The Programme for Government is also promising a review of hospital beds to determine where they should be placed.
The proposal for yet another review will set hearts sinking, particularly after an emergency department task force implementation group was supposed to be overseeing this kind of progress. It is imperative this is done quickly.
The Government has already set itself an unambitious target to very gradually reduce the numbers on trolleys waiting more than six hours for a bed.
But it will be 2021 before it is met for all patients.
If the new minister manages to outdo that target, he will have scored major success. And he will have saved many lives.