EMERGENCY departments in seven major hospitals went into meltdown one night last month, forcing the HSE to take immediate radical action to avert a threat to patient safety.
A report on the event, which has just come to light, shows the HSE was forced to allow elderly patients in the hospitals jump the queue for places in nursing homes in a bid to alleviate the overcrowding pressure.
The report says that by 8pm on the night of April 14, the patient count in the six Dublin hospitals and one Cork hospital with 243 patients on trolleys was so high "there was significant concern for the safety and quality care of our patients".
Elderly patients in the acute beds were given priority ahead of all others on the waiting list for the Fair Deal scheme and moved to nursing homes.
The HSE report into the incident stressed that action took heed of the fact clinical studies have shown that emergency department overcrowding increases the risk of death for those waiting for a bed by 30pc.
It said it was "deemed necessary" to "immediately" suspend the normal Fair Deal placement process for elderly people waiting for nursing home places and 116 people were moved.
The report says that an increase in "flu-like" illnesses in the weeks leading up to the crisis had led to a rise in the number of people presenting at Emergency Departments and needing inpatient beds.
A Department of Health spokesperson told the Herald: "Since the beginning of 2013 there have been increased presentations to Emergency Departments by the elderly, with respiratory illness and more complex problems, resulting in increased admissions.
"These increases have affected the patient flow in hospitals and during January and February this year."
The spokesperson said the numbers were also affected by a rise in the number of elderly patients in hospital "awaiting discharge".