A struggling health trust has been rocked by a fresh crisis with serious questions raised over patient safety at two of Northern Ireland’s major hospitals.
GPs working in the Northern Health & Social Care Trust have been asked not to send patients to the emergency departments at the Causeway or Antrim Area hospitals unless absolutely necessary.
In a shocking development, a seriously ill patient discharged herself from Antrim Area Hospital this week because she was so concerned at the overcrowded conditions on her ward.
The woman, suffering from acute pneumonia, was asked to move to a makeshift bed in the middle of the ward because staff needed her bed for another |patient. The chief executive of the trust, Sean Donaghy, contacted family doctors earlier this week to advise them of “increased |pressures” at both hospitals.
“I would ask that you do not send/refer patients to the emergency departments at either hospital unless absolutely necessary until the situation has improved,” he said.
The email was sent just days after GPs warned that hospitals across Northern Ireland may be unable to cope with the expected spike in flu cases in coming weeks.
It is the latest controversy for the trust coming after Health Minister Edwin Poots sacked former chairman Jim Stewart after he refused to fire Mr Donaghy. Antrim GP Dr Allen McCullough said: “My patients are coming into me telling me beds are being pushed up against fire escape doors in corridors in Antrim |Hospital.
“One patient had a bed in a ward, but she was able to get |herself to the toilet so they asked her to move to a bed they had set up in the middle of the ward to make room for another patient.
“There was no curtain, no oxygen point, it is far from an ideal |experience for the patient and it certainly raises serious concerns over patient safety.
“I am certainly not blaming staff, it must be a nightmare for them working in those sorts of conditions. It isn’t what doctors or nurses, or any health professional, wants for their patients.”
Dr McCullough also said GPs are outraged at the suggestion they send patients to A&E without good reason.
Dr Tom Black, chair of the British Medical Association (NI) GP committee, said: “Family |doctors have been working |extremely hard in recent weeks to make sure patients don’t have to go to hospital.”
A spokeswoman from the trust said the health service experiences additional demand every winter and “we have contingency measures in place to deal with this”. She said additional beds and staff were put in place at Antrim.
Mr Poots did not comment on concerns in wards in Antrim Area Hospital but said he wants to ensure long waiting times in the A&Es in the Northern Trust are “robustly addressed”.
“The continuing breaches in the 12 hours waiting time performance target at Antrim Area Hospital are unacceptable,” he said, adding that a specialist team was set up to help address this.
Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Northern Ireland, said: “We started getting calls during the Christmas holidays from members who were extremely |concerned about measures being taken to cope with patient numbers at Antrim Area Hospital. They were concerned about the dignity and safety of patients and I don’t think it is possible to underestimate the distress of those nurses. I would like to publicly acknowledge that the director of nursing at the trust and all the nursing staff have gone far and beyond the call of duty of what should be expected.”