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Calls for investigation amid 'alarming' response to claims about storage of bodies at hospital

Doctors have defended four pathologists who raised concerns about conditions at University Hospital Waterford’s mortuary after their claims were disputed.

University Hospital Waterford
University Hospital Waterford
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THERE HAVE BEEN calls for an independent investigation to be held into mortuary services at University Hospital Waterford.

The development comes amid confusion in recent days over conditions at the hospital’s mortuary.

Last week concerns were raised about dead bodies being left on trolleys in the corridors of UHW’s mortuary.

According to a letter signed by four consultant pathologists at the hospital, first seen by the Waterford News and Star and the Irish Times, “due to inadequate body storage and refrigeration facilities, most bodies lie on trolleys in corridors, often leaking body fluids on to the floor”.

The letter, sent in October 2018 and made public last week, warned that bodies decomposing in the mortuary’s corridors lead to closed-coffin funerals, as well as “expose the public visiting hospitals to the odours of a postmortem room”.

In response to the letter being made public, the South-South West Hospital Group (SSWHG), which runs the hospital, said a mobile refrigeration would be made available until the existing mortuary is extended and eventually replaced with a new facility.

However, the group then disputed the contents of the letter. In a statement issued on Monday, a spokesperson said the group “has not received any complaint from any member of the public regarding the mortuary at University Hospital Waterford”.

“The SSWHG and University Hospital Waterford can confirm that it is not in receipt of any incident report form from any staff member in relation to the Mortuary at University Hospital Waterford.”

The statement said both the group and hospital “currently have no evidence that would substantiate the claims contained in recent correspondence”.

‘No evidence’

These sentiments were echoed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who said there was “no evidence” to support the allegations. 

“I don’t know if the claims were true and certainly those who made them haven’t put forward any evidence to support them,” Varadkar told reporters in Waterford yesterday.

Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD today said Varadkar’s comments showed a “clear lack of empathy”, and she called for “a full independent investigation” to be held.  

Yet again the Taoiseach displays an attitude that is out of touch and severely lacking in empathy. His utter disregard for the serious concerns raised by pathologists, without first attempting to establish the facts, shows where his priorities clearly lie.

McDonald said the “families who have lost loved ones in Waterford and the southeast area” deserve to know the truth. 

She called on the SSWHG and hospital management to appear before the Oireachtas Health Committee “without delay”. 

Meanwhile, a number of doctors have defended the pathologists in question.

The Irish Hospital Consultants Association said it was “alarmed” by the government’s response. 

A statement from the IHCA, which represents over 90% of consultants working in hospitals, said consultants “have an ethical and professional responsibility to highlight concerns that impact on patient care and service delivery”.

The consultant pathologists in Waterford have repeatedly highlighted their genuine concerns about the Waterford University Hospital mortuary facilities to management over a lengthy period.

“The response by government to question the validity of these concerns rather than tackling the issue in a much more timely manner is disappointing.”

Dr Donal O’Hanlon, IHCA President, added that the response from health service management and the government is “disappointing as it has not focused on the risks and concerns highlighted”.

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“It is clear that the consultants have, in the public interest, highlighted genuine issues and risks associated with the insufficiency of mortuary facilities,” he said. 

‘Dispute about facts’ 

The story was first reported by Waterford News and Star journalist Darren Skelton, who interviewed Varadkar yesterday.

Skelton asked Varadkar about the insinuation that the four pathologists who signed the letter were not telling the truth.

The Taoiseach replied by saying: “On this particular issue there is a dispute about the facts between the consultants on the one side and the hospital management and the coroner, the funeral home directors and others on the other side…

Certainly the impression that was created last week was that it was a regular, ongoing occurrence – that bodies were left on trolleys, that they were decomposing – it appears now that the truth is somewhat different to that.

“I’m not blaming anyone here, my interest is making sure people get the service they should get and that people are treated with dignity whether in life or death,” Varadkar added. 

The statement issued by the SSWHG on Monday noted that, in relation to contact from bereaved families and funeral directors since the initial media reports, UHW received a query from one family and is engaging with them.

The statement added that UHW is “a hospice-friendly hospital” and wishes to “reassure the public that all deceased patients are treated with respect and dignity”.

Planning permission for a new mortuary was granted in 2016; approval to proceed to tender was received this March and the facility is expected to be open by 2021.

TheJournal.ie has contacted the SSWHG for comment in relation to calls for a full investigation to be held into the matter. 

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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