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University Hospital Limerick

Donnelly defends preventing Aoife Johnston's family any input into inquiry's terms of reference

The Health Minister said this was done on the basis that it would “ensure accountability” at the end of the process.

HEALTH MINISTER STEPHEN Donnelly has defended the decision not to allow the family of the teenager, who died from sepsis at University Hospital Limerick, to have any input into the terms of reference for an inquiry into the circumstances of her death.

Donnelly said this was done on the basis that it would “ensure accountability” at the end of the process.

He expressed confidence in HSE management in the mid-west region, saying that he feels a new senior management have been beneficial – but he criticised roster measures undertaken by previous management.

On Tuesday, the HSE published its terms of reference for the investigation into Aoife Johnston’s death.

The 16-year-old Clare teenager died on 19 December 2022 after waiting 12 hours in University Hospital Limerick’s emergency department for treatment for sepsis.

Her family has said that her condition deteriorated to such a degree during that time that other patients began advocating for her to be seen.

HSE chief executive Bernard Gloster said the judge-led inquiry would provide “an evidence-based report” on the circumstances surrounding Johnston’s death as well as the clinical and corporate governance of University Hospital Limerick.

A systems analysis review (SAR) report found that overcrowding in UHL’s emergency department is “endemic”, and that doctor and nurse staffing levels are “insufficient”.

A solicitor for the family Damien Tansey said that the family were informed of the terms of reference the evening before they were published, and “without any consultation with the family, without any warning that they were about to be published”.

Speaking today to RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland programme, the health minister said he understood “on a human level” why the family are upset and added that he has contacted them to meet them.

“I acknowledge that we would always want to include families in setting terms of reference for various reviews and that is normal practice. It doesn’t happen always the way it should but it is the way things should always work.

“In this particular case, because this is an investigation that could result in accountability at the end – something that the HSE is criticized for not normally doing and indeed myself in opposition, I would have criticized HSE for not doing it.”

Donnelly added that the approach for the Aoife Johnston case is “different” and will help ensure “accountability at the end”.

When asked what was meant by accountability, he said: “I mean if adverse findings are made, then there are processes that might follow from this investigation. Now, the advice that the HSE got was in order to to have a process whereby you could have accountability at the end, there were no third parties [that] could input to the terms of reference.

“That’s none of the management, none of the staff involved, none of the clinicians and the family.

“So at a human level, you always want to do it. But we also want to have a process where there can be accountability at the end.”

He did not express confidence in former HSE management, also claiming that there are “changes” needed for to maintain the flow of patients and manage the cases.

“Certainly when I read the report into the tragic death of Aoife Johnston, there were practices being followed in terms of rostering which I had personally raised with the hospital previously, and asked to be changed.

“This weekend they certainly haven’t been changed and I welcome Bernard Gloster’s accelerated appointment of the new regional executive officer,” he said.