A&E swamped with repeat visitors up to 70 times a year
Accident and emergency departments are being swamped by repeat visitors, with some patients attending up to 70 times a year.
Almost 1,000 people arrived at A&E units on 10 or more occasions in the last 12 months.
Many of the people, known as 'frequent flyers', made dozens of visits, placing huge additional pressure on our already stretched health service.
Former Health Minister Michael McGimpsey, who now sits on the Stormont health committee, said the figures were extraordinary.
He claimed some people were being "a nuisance" to the health service.
Figures released by the five health trusts show that 926 people attended A&E departments 10 or more times in 2014.
The highest repeat attendance was in the South Eastern Trust area, where someone visited the Ulster Hospital's A&E unit 70 times.
That is the equivalent of one person turning up every five days with an emergency.
Another patient made 63 separate visits to Antrim Area Hospital's A&E department, while a third made 63 visits to Altnagelvin A&E in Londonderry.
The figures emerged after a winter which saw A&E departments come under unprecedented pressure.
In December, our waiting times were the worst in the UK, with a quarter of those seeking emergency care waiting longer than the four-hour target time.
Mr McGimpsey said repeat attenders were piling unnecessary pressure on the system.
"The statistics are absolutely extraordinary," he told the Belfast Telegraph.
"There is absolutely no way anyone needs to go to an A&E 70 times in a year, and clearly there is a serious issue there.
"Our staff are under huge pressure, all of our A&Es are under huge pressure, and yet we're having these visits which, on the face of it, appear unnecessary."
Mr McGimpsey said there was no reason for someone turning up 70 times a year to A&E. "I would have thought the answer to that is they don't have 70 emergencies and they don't need to go 70 times," he added.
"The health trusts need to deal with these people on an individual basis and not permit them to, in effect, make a nuisance of themselves.
"Every time one of these visits is made, it is taking away from patients who genuinely need help."
Janice Smyth, who is director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, said: "There are a variety of issues that may lead patients to become frequent visitors to emergency departments.
"This issue is about more than just numbers, what we need to understand is what lies behind these numbers.
"However, no one should need to attend an emergency department 70 times in one year."
Dr Sean McGovern, deputy vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine in Northern Ireland, said repeat attenders often had complex social care needs.
"This is a very complex and challenging group of patients and they are among the most vulnerable in society. They frequently present with mental health and alcohol-related issues," he said.
"Even the high frequency attenders, over 30 per year, are less than 1% of overall attendees. They are an at-risk group.
"Emergency department attendances mirror wide societal issues and these patients are frequently high users of primary care services also, so are not just defaulting to emergency departments."
Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Health Minister Jim Wells said: "Staff in our emergency services must be allowed to focus on patients who are the most sick and injured."