Northern Ireland

Seriously ill patients waiting for beds as north's hospitals come under severe strain

Emergency departments across the north, including at Craigavon Area Hospital, are under severe pressure. Picture by Mal McCann
Emergency departments across the north, including at Craigavon Area Hospital, are under severe pressure. Picture by Mal McCann

SERIOUSLY ill patients are waiting for beds in hospitals across Northern Ireland, with the health service warning it is under "severe pressure".

The Department of Health said that pressure on services has escalated over the last few days, with all hospitals now beyond their capacity.

A lack of care for elderly patients in the community, both at home and in care settings, means that many cannot be discharged to free up beds.

The Ulster Hospital in Dundonald warned yesterday morning that its emergency department was under "immense pressure" with 92 patients waiting in the department and 65 awaiting admission.

Dr Gareth Hampton, a consultant in emergency medicine in the Southern trust, works in both Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry and Craigavon Area Hospital.

He said every emergency department in Northern Ireland is facing the same pressures.

"Every single cubicle is filled with patients waiting for a bed and more and more patients (are) waiting in the corridor," he told The Irish News.

He said although Covid has not helped matters, the issues the health service is facing pre-date the pandemic.

"We were seeing this in summertime pre-Covid," he said.

"Covid is not the cause of this current crisis but it hasn't made it any easier."

Dr Hampton said the problems in the health service are the same across the UK.

He said more work needs to be done to ensure elderly patients have the support and care they need outside hospital.

"Work needs to be done to prevent the difficulties in community (care)," he said.

"Have we spent enough time and effort in supporting patients living at home?

"Have we looked at alternatives to hospital admission? Do we really value people who deliver care in the community?"

Last night, the health service urgently appealed for all patients ready for discharge to be picked up promptly.

It said elderly patients who are ready for discharge but are waiting for a care home place should be moved to the first suitable home.

It said patients can be moved to their first choice home at a later date.

"The HSC system is in very challenging times and we are asking you to help us so we can help others who are very ill and need a hospital bed," a spokesman said.

"Put simply, we need your support urgently."

New figures from the department show that the number of patients waiting for more than 12 hours in emergency departments soared last month as hospitals struggled to find beds.

The number of patients waiting more than 12 hours rose by 49 per cent between June 2021 and last month.

At Altnagelvin Area Hospital in Derry, patients were waiting for an average of 19 hours and 52 minutes before they were admitted.

Under government targets, no patient attending any emergency department should wait longer than 12 hours.

Last month, 8,192 people waited for more than 12 hours, compared to 5,488 in June 2021.

The rise in waiting times came as the total number of people attending emergency departments fell last month.

The reduction is partly explained by more patients attending two new urgent care services - Phonefirst and Urgent Care Centres.

Dr Paul Kerr, Vice President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine Northern Ireland, said staff are fearful of what is to come in winter.

“The difficulty in discharging patients from hospital is causing exit block, where patients are unable to move through the system in a timely way," he said.

"Our emergency departments are dangerously crowded with patients facing excessively long waiting times, these queues extend outside the emergency department with our paramedic colleagues queueing in ambulances for hours with patients, leaving vital ambulance crews unable to respond to urgent and emergency calls in the community."

He called on Stormont to prioritise the crisis.

"Emergency medicine staff and our paramedic colleagues face stress, distress and moral injury daily in this crisis," he said.

"It is extremely difficult. Many staff are burned out and exhausted.

"They recognise the frustration that patients feel given these long waiting times. The data show waiting times to be seen are dramatically increasing, and the sickest patients face the longest waits."