Monday 11 December 2017

Those in line for surgery sacrificed to take focus off ailing A&E departments

Health Minister Simon Harris Picture: Tom Burke
Health Minister Simon Harris Picture: Tom Burke
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Public patients waiting in line for surgery are paying a heavy price for the hospital trolley crisis. The public outcry about hospital overcrowding has meant emergency patients are being given priority for beds.

This is leading to very ill people, who need an operation, having their surgery cancelled - several times in some cases.

Those on surgery waiting lists were sacrificed in the run-up to last year's general election when the Government wanted to keep a lid on trolley waiting times.

While their suffering may not be as visible as emergency patients', many endure pain and discomfort on a daily basis as their condition deteriorates.

The problems are exacerbated by theatre closures due to lack of nurses and specialists.

Overall, hospital waiting lists are now at their worst for December since records began.

But they have come with the usual spin from the Government.

There are 535,974 on a combined list for surgery, an outpatient appointment or endoscopy procedure.

The bleak end-of-year figures yesterday showed 81,015 patients across the country are now on a waiting list for surgery. There has been a particular jump in those waiting between nine and 18 months.

Needless to say, Health Minister Simon Harris made no reference to this surge of more than 500.

Instead he preferred to concentrate on the very modest reduction in patients waiting more than 18 months.

Their numbers have come down from 4,001 at the end of November to 1,738.

It is a poor return for the level of investment last year and an ominous signal of the problems in the year ahead.

Hospital overcrowding is set to continue at a high level for the coming months and waiting list patients will continue to take second place.

The Budget allocated €20m to outsource some waiting list patients under the National Treatment Purchase Fund.

But this will not stretch far given the enormity of the numbers now on lists.

It is estimated the cost of a hip and knee operation in a private hospital is around €15,000 - which will cover fewer than 1,500 patients using the €20m.

Some of the patients who are ending up in emergency departments are those on waiting lists after their condition worsened.

The flu that is now circulating is adding to the distress, particularly that of the over-65s whose immune systems are already low.

Doctors say the outbreak is debilitating and patients who have the virus are spending six to eight days in hospital.

Surgeries are being cancelled again. But even these figures disguise the real extent of the problem.

Several hospitals, in anticipation of the influx through emergency departments, schedule a reduced number of surgeries in January and February in order to keep beds free.

As of yesterday, the provision of extra beds remained slow.

Of the original 55 acute beds and 18 step-down beds announced in September 2016, just 35 have been opened.

Around 28 opened in Galway yesterday but it will be another two months or more before staff are available to open more.

Irish Independent

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