Northern Ireland’s A&Es are struggling to cope with the number of patients turning up at their doors — prompting calls for a review of how emergency care is delivered.
The Mater Hospital casualty unit was forced to close its doors to patients 268 times over a 13-month period, while the Royal Victoria Hospital A&E — Northern Ireland’s regional trauma centre — had to do the same 159 times.
Meanwhile, staff at Lagan Valley Hospital’s A&E asked paramedics to take all medical patients to the Downe Hospital instead for four days in March last year.
Figures uncovered by the Belfast Telegraph through Freedom of Information have revealed the challenges faced by health bosses to keep A&Es open and have reignited debate over the number of acute hospitals in Northern Ireland.
The British Medical Association (BMA) has issued a challenge to the new Health Minister to tackle the situation head-on and seriously examine the way the health service is delivered in Northern Ireland. Dr Paul Darragh, chair of the BMA (NI) Council, said: “We cannot continue on just doing the same thing, we cannot afford to.
“The number of acute hospital sites, as well as the numbers of accident and emergency units in Northern Ireland, needs to be examined, as well as the benefits of providing specialist hospital care in fewer locations by highly specialised and well-equipped teams of professionals.”
Hospital diverts are temporary measures implemented when staff at an A&E cannot treat any more patients because the department is at capacity. When this happens, a divert is made and patients go to an alternative hospital.
According to the figures obtained by the Belfast Telegraph, a total of 896 diverts were implemented at hospitals here between January 1 last year and the end of January 2011.
Over half the diverts related to the emergency departments at the RVH, Belfast City and Mater hospitals over the 13-month period.
Dr Brian Patterson from the BMA said health bosses must carefully consider the practicalities of running three A&E departments in such close proximity.
And he said the new Health Minister must not allow politics to influence the decision-making process.
A spokesman from the Belfast Health & Social Care Trust said: “Our emergency departments have been under pressure. We have been working to relieve these pressures in a number of ways — specifically through a detailed, unscheduled care project which is looking in depth at how we manage the care of unscheduled patients from the minute they arrive at our doors until they are discharged from emergency departments or wards. The aim is to do our best to meet patients’ needs in the best possible way.”