Health Minister Edwin Poots must order an urgent assessment into how older people are treated in hospital amid allegations that a 98-year-old woman endured a "nightmare" stay at the Ulster Hospital, two watchdogs have said.
As reported in the Belfast Telegraph, frail Mary Anne Hood prayed for death as she lay on a trolley and later lay close to human waste in the hospital, according to her daughter.
Calls have now been made by the Commissioner for Older People and the Patient Client Council for the trust to thoroughly investigate the allegations as a matter of urgency.
The Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland, Claire Keatinge, also demanded that Mr Poots conduct a rapid assessment of the experience of older people in A&E departments here.
A spokesman for the Department of Health confirmed the minister was "maintaining a close interest" in the case.
During four days Mrs Hood's daughter, senior academic lawyer Rosemary Craig, noted major concerns she claimed she witnessed during the last week.
Among those concerns were soiled clothes left in bins and on floors overnight and family members having to remove them; the public forced to share a lift with a staff member pushing a corpse on a trolley, and exhausted staff working hours long after their shifts had finished.
The South Eastern Health Trust, however, said staff had been left "in horror" by the report it described as "one-sided".
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the trust confirmed it would be reviewing the care given to Mrs Hood.
"The South Eastern Trust is hugely disappointed that the Belfast Telegraph chose to go with a one-sided account before allowing us time to meet with the complainant.
"If there are any concerns, these matters will be dealt with and we will acknowledge any deficiencies in our care.
"The trust is interested in understanding the true situation and after we have heard from all parties talk further to the family and learn any lessons."
It also stated the trust did not remove corpses in the public lifts "ever".
But Ms Keatinge said that she was "shocked and appalled" by the allegations.
"Sadly, this is not a new concern, and it is yet another in a long line of unacceptable experiences of older people in their hour of need," she said.
"Failures in our system mean that many older people are being let down by the very service which is supposed to support them.
"What will it take to convince those in a position of power that our A&E departments must give confidence, care, excellent treatment and dignity to older people?
"Older people need to be certain that if they become ill, the support, treatment and dignity that they need to care for them will be provided in an effective and timely way."
Ms Keatinge has asked the trust to thoroughly investigate the allegations as a matter of urgency.
The Patient Client Council also said hospital services must assure that they are providing effective treatment and care in a safe environment.
"It is important that the trust investigates the concerns raised by this family's experience as a matter of urgency.
"It is unacceptable that patients and families should feel so disappointed in their experience of any of our hospitals."
Ms Craig has asked the minister to visit the ward her mother was admitted to in the Ulster Hospital.
In a statement, a spokesman for the Department of Health said: "It is unacceptable that any person feels that their treatment, or that of a family member, is below the high standard that it should be.
"The minister understands the trust is keen to investigate and address these problems.
"Mrs Craig has already been in contact with the minister, who is maintaining a close interest."
He added: "He would always seek to keep the details of any visits of such nature private."
Mary Anne Hood (98) was admitted at 10.30am on March 1 to A&E at the Ulster Hospital. She was on a trolley until 6pm, then admitted to Ward 15, a mixed ward. Her daughter Rosemary Craig claims she witnessed several incidents that concerned her about the environment patients were treated in, including claims patients were not taken to the toilet as staff were too busy. The trust states Mrs Craig did not approach it at the time with her concerns. It is now reviewing the care given to Mrs Hood, but branded the Telegraph report "one-sided".
We asked South Eastern Health Trust to respond. Their answer was surprising
The hard-hitting words of academic Rosemary Craig have painted a grim picture of her 98-year-old mother's experience in the Ulster Hospital. On Thursday, the law lecturer told the Belfast Telegraph how she saw staff struggling against the odds to operate within a "Third World" system she felt was under immense pressure.
Mrs Craig's specific claims raised major questions about the quality of care at the hospital. So it is important that both sides of the story are told.
Comments from the South Eastern Health Trust were included in the initial report. But we also wanted to provide the trust with ample time to answer specific claims. We asked the trust to respond to individual claims made by Mrs Craig after she said she witnessed:
- Soiled clothes left in bins and on floors overnight and family members having to remove them.
- The public sharing a lift with a staff member pushing a corpse on a trolley.
- Exhausted staff working hours after their shifts finish.
- Patients not getting medication or being taken to the toilet as staff were too busy.
- A man who'd died in a hospital bed not removed for hours.
The trust responded with a statement saying that the article had caused the staff horror. The first paragraph read: "This is my place of work and I feel so loyal to this trust. Everyone knew I was referred to in this story. I didn't want anyone to read this and think I don't do my job properly. I have to hold my head high. We are all passionate about nursing and we were gutted to read this as it in no way reflected the care we gave."
The quote from an unnamed nurse was surprising, but it did not deal with the specific allegations made by Mrs Craig.
The statement explained the quote was from a nurse in Ward 15, who made contact with the chief executive's office to express "their horror at this inaccurate and unjust article which made headline news".
It also said the trust was "hugely disappointed" that the Belfast Telegraph chose to go with a "one-sided account before allowing us time to meet with the complainant".
"Our doctors and nurses feel upset they have not had a chance to respond to the allegations, many of which they would take issue with. Ultimately, they believe this article was unfair and unjust. We are only now having the opportunity to talk to the complainant."
Then the statement answers one of the initial questions: "We do not remove corpses in the public lifts – ever."
It did confirm it will review the care given to Mrs Hood. "If there are any concerns, these matters will be dealt with and we will acknowledge any deficiencies in our care.
"The trust is interested in understanding the true situation and, after we have heard from all parties, talk further to the family and learn any lessons. In the meantime, we would like to invite the Belfast Telegraph to visit Ward 15 and find out what it is like to work there, to hear of staff experiences over the past few days, of their pride in their job, their compassion for patients and their horror at the way they have been misrepresented."
Mrs Craig said that her issue was with the systems and structures of the trust.
"It was never about the staff, they were always trying to do their best," she said. "The problem was, there was just not enough."
And there is little doubt that staff at the Ulster Hospital are facing intense strains.
The South Eastern Trust had to put in "escalation measures" after the number of patients who attended the Ulster's A&E department peaked on March 4, with 306 patients at its A&E against a daily average of 226.
On the same day we published Ms Craig's account, the Belfast Telegraph reported a quote from Janice Smyth, of the Royal College of Nursing.
She said: "Feedback from RCN members within the South Eastern Trust confirms the pressures they are working under as they bear the brunt of a system that is not working."