Monday 21 January 2019

The failures of our ailing health service

'The flu epidemic has focused our attention on an horrendous situation which we have been prepared to tolerate for too long.'
'The flu epidemic has focused our attention on an horrendous situation which we have been prepared to tolerate for too long.'


Whether the next general election takes place this year or in 2019 - or later, it may really only be a matter of months away. That is a relatively short time to get political ducks in a row. But what will be the issues that decide the outcome? Politicians might like to think that the big-ticket items for the voters would probably be the economy, Brexit or the Eighth Amendment. Perhaps they will be.

But the electorate will not be voting with their heads. They will be voting with their hearts. And right now their hearts are broken with the state of the health service.

We might almost have taken increases in hospital queues in our stride, if the arrival of the Aussie flu had not pushed it all so far front and centre that we can no longer be blase. Not when the sick are told to stay away from hospitals and keep the children home from school, because now even the children are being put on trolleys and there is a real danger that people are going to die unnecessarily because our health service cannot cope.

The flu epidemic has focused our attention on an horrendous situation which we have been prepared to tolerate for too long. But not any more. Because now we can clearly see that there is a cause and an effect rather that one big impenetrable mystery. The health service was as badly hit by the cutbacks the Irish people were forced to make to save some European banks, as any other area of public spending, but much of that has been restored and now funding is at least on a par with other comparable countries. But still there is no improvement. Clearly when a service is adequately funded but still cannot deliver, it is down to a failure of management.

More beds are clearly needed and more nurses to allow beds be made available; and rosters of consultants - emergency workers in the same way as their more lowly colleagues - may need to be altered so patients are not admitted unnecessarily or kept in hospital too long by junior doctors afraid to make a clinical decision above their pay grade. But these issues and several others will not be addressed by a HSE management that is top heavy and seems paralysed.

We, the public, cannot get at the management. But we elect their political masters. Simon Harris is experiencing his second January in the minister's office in the Department of Health. His public utterances this week were reminisent of those he made last year at the same time. This only underlines the cyclical nature of the difficulties in health and the continuing struggle to get to grips with them. (The only note of hope from the minister is his acknowledgement that more beds must be provided.)

The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has a weakened authority in this area having previously served in the Department of Health without any spectacular success. But for all our sakes he has to see beyond that and apply the full weight of the office he holds to insist once and for all that the health service is given a functioning, effective management that can see to it that the citizens of this country get the treatment and care they deserve and for which they are paying dearly. We need more from the Taoiseach than to be told how frustrating he finds it all to be.

If he can not do better, he may expect little sympathy if the public decides that health is the major issue at the next election.

Sunday Independent

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