‘Tis the season to be jolly, to shop til you drop –and to endure overcrowded hospitals.
Combine the cold weather with flu season, and you get one of the busiest times of the year for hospital emergency departments (EDs).
Hospitals plan for it as much as they can, though long waits and delays are inevitable.
However, in the very rare case, some hospitals simply cannot cope and effectively temporarily ‘shut’ their ED until they can get waiting times and bed access under control.
This is what happened with Beaumont hospital over the weekend, a hospital currently experiencing severe overcrowding in its ED.
Despite introducing measures to help relieve the pressures, conditions for patients and staff have deteriorated so much that Beaumont’s ED can only deal with acute emergencies for the time being.
The hospital has asked GPs and ambulances not to send patients to its ED unless absolutely necessary and has advised patients to make alternative arrangements where possible.
Some non-urgent operations and procedures are also being cancelled or postponed this week in an effort to ease pressure.
This is a very serious situation and highlights, yet again, the pressure Beaumont Hospital is under.
More than 45,000 patients attend the hospital’s ED every year and the numbers to date in 2014 have increased.
Most hospitals struggle to cope with patient demand at this time of year, and the other Dublin hospitals have their problems.
However ED overcrowding, not to mention serious outbreaks of norovirus, are a regular occurrence in Beaumont.
The details of a letter by Liam Duffy, CEO of Beaumont Hospital to the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA), which came into the public domain in October 2013, made for stark reading.
Duffy’s letter outlined many potential infection risks to patients in Beaumont, confirmed the ED was struggling with overcrowding, toilet facilities were inadequate and there were no isolation rooms.
The HSE has previously promised to help the hospital improve its facilities and services and there have been some welcome new facilities opened during 2014.
However the ED overcrowding problems that have resulted in an effective shutdown of its emergency service in the last few days show that Beaumont still needs serious help.
So what can be done?
The sharp reduction in hospital budgets since the recession hit is part of the reason for Beaumont’s problems, though again, all hospitals have had to deal with this.
No doubt Beaumont hopes its budget for next year can be increased, and yesterday it welcomed the recent allocation of €25m in the HSE Service Plan to begin to address delayed discharges.
This includes €8m to increase access to short stay beds across the Dublin area, the provision of intensive home care packages, and extra resources for the Nursing Home Support Scheme (Fair Deal).
The hospital has urged the HSE to start allocating these resources as a matter of urgency and to provide priority to Beaumont.
For now, Beaumont is keeping the situation in its ED under continuous review.
It is clear though the hospital needs a long-term solution for ED overcrowding, among other issues, and this really must be a priority for the HSE in 2015.
Patients and staff deserve better.