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'I'm sick to death of this problem' - Varadkar speaks out on A&E crisis

The Health Minister said the problem is going to get worse next week.

Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

HEALTH MINISTER LEO Varadkar has said he is “sick to death” of the overcrowding problem in Ireland’s accident and emergency departments.

Varadkar made his comments on Drivetime, the first time he has spoken publicly about the record number of people waiting on trolleys in emergency departments this week.

Presenter Mary Wilson told Vardakar he was ”not half as sick as the people sitting in chairs and on trolleys”.

The Health Minister agreed before saying he expected the problem to get even worse next week.

“I think it probably will be higher next week,” he said, adding that the second week of January is “traditionally the worst” due to the junior doctor changeover in hospitals.

Varadkar had been criticised for not publicly commenting on the matter before today. On the programme he confirmed he had been visiting relatives in Florida this week. He said he couldn’t take time off over Christmas as the high court case surrounding the clinically-dead pregnant woman being kept on life support was ongoing.

On 22 December, Varadkar convened the Emergency Department (ED) Taskforce to find long-term solutions to overcrowding.

He said the measures they had put in place over Christmas, such as curtailing elective surgery and making more homecare packages available, clearly didn’t work or weren’t fully implemented. He said he was looking into why this was the case.

On Monday it emerged that Dr Tony O’Connell is to resign as HSE National Director for Acute Hospitals and Chairman of the ED Taskforce at the end of the month in order to move to Australia. His wife is taking up a top academic post there.

Varadkar said O’Connell had not made him aware of his intention to leave at the meeting just before Christmas. He said he found out the news when his special adviser text him on Monday.

“Tony is and was a great addition to our health service and I had great hopes for him.”

Up to individual hospitals

Vardakar said it was up to individual hospitals to decide if they would postpone non-urgent elective surgeries.

He added that acute beds would be opened up “where it makes sense to do so”, noting that three five-bed wards have been opened in St Vincent’s Hospital, 38 beds in the Mater Hospital, 26 in St. Luke’s Hospital in Kilkenny, and 24 in Our Lady’s Hospital in Navan.

Varadkar said delayed discharges have played a major role in the ED backlog. €25 million was allocated to tackle this in the 2015 Budget.

Some 584 people were on trolleys in EDs this morning, with this figure reducing to less than 300 this afternoon.

Varadkar called on nurses to allow a second extra bed to be put on wards temporarily as this was a preferable option to having 40 extra people on trolleys in EDs. The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) has previously said it is against such a move.

The Health Minister called for “all hands on deck” and asked for emergency consultants to be on floor, doing minor procedures.

He said recruiting extra staff remained “an ongoing difficulty”. The ED Taskforce is expected to meet again this week.

Elderly patients

Meanwhile, the Irish Medical Organisation said that its members, including consultants in emergency medicine and GPs, are warning that the prolonged nature of this crisis is causing particular problems, including a growing loss of confidence on the part of elderly patients in Emergency Departments.

Professor Trevor Duffy, President of the IMO, claimed that elderly patients who should be presenting to Emergency Departments for treatment “were refusing to and were running significant risks to their health and wellbeing as a result”.

Dr Ray Walley, Chairman of the GP Committee of the IMO, said that he had reports from doctors across the country who were recounting instances of elderly patients refusing to attend at Emergency Departments.

“It is just not possible to cater for patients who need emergency care in their homes or in GP surgeries and there is a real risk now of the wider health system becoming log-jammed as a result of the blockage in the Emergency Departments,” he said.

Professor Duffy called on the Government as a whole to respond to this crisis.

First published: 17.58

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Órla Ryan

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