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Fears grow for patients as death a day in NI hospitals linked to 'serious incidents'

By Sophie Inge

Published 26/11/2016

There were 1,206 deaths linked to serious incidents in hospitals here between 2011-2015
There were 1,206 deaths linked to serious incidents in hospitals here between 2011-2015
Michelle O'Neill

More than 1,000 deaths linked to serious incidents in Northern Ireland's hospitals were recorded in the last five years.

The number of death-related serious adverse incidents (SAIs) more than doubled between 2011 and 2015.

Last year alone, 323 deaths linked to an SAI were recorded - almost one a day - Health Minister Michelle O'Neill revealed.

In total, 1,206 incidents which led to death took place in our hospitals in the last five years.

It has led to warnings that a growing crisis in the health service is placing patients' safety at risk.

UUP MLA Robbie Butler said: "Whilst there is no doubt that some of these 1,206 death-related serious adverse incidents were unavoidable, I am fearful that the growing turmoil in our hospitals is now causing patients to come to harm." The statistics emerged in the same week that figures showed further increases in waiting lists.

In recent weeks the Belfast Telegraph has reported on the shortage of front line medical staff, including nurses, and huge spending on agency staff.

We also revealed how under-pressure hospitals axed almost 6,000 operations for non-clinical reasons last year. The number of cancelled ops soared from 3,976 in 2012/13 to 5,580 in 2015/16 - up 40%.

Now, the new figures from the Department of Health reveal how serious adverse incidents have been linked to hundreds of deaths.

An SAI is defined by the department as any event or circumstance that led or could have led to serious unintended or unexpected harm, loss or damage to patients.

The 1,205 deaths linked to an SAI reported to the Health and Social Care Board between 2011 and 2015 comprise:

• 148 in 2011.

• 165 in 2012.

• 222 in 2013.

• 348 in 2014.

• 323 in 2015.

The number was highest for the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust at 391 across the five years, followed by the Northern Trust with 224 cases.

Ms O'Neill said an SAI notification that documents a death does not necessarily imply that the circumstances relating to the adverse incident contributed to the cause of that death.

An SAI may also be received relating to one incident, but may involve one or more deaths - for example, maternal and neonatal death.

Ms O'Neill said a change in the SAI process in October 2013 introduced a requirement to report all child deaths as SAIs, including those from natural causes. This led to an increase in the number of SAIs.

The figures also show that just 157 deaths linked to an SAI were referred to a coroner since April 2014.

Earlier this month it was revealed that the overall number of SAIs, including those not linked to deaths, had increased by 150%.

Between 2011 and 2015 the number rose from 242 to 604 - figures which Mr Butler described as "frightening".

Mr Butler added: "When people attend hospital, or any health and social care setting, they reasonably expect to receive safe and sustainable care.

"So it is very concerning that there are now clearly more things going wrong than in the past.

"Sadly, mistakes made in the treatment of some of our most vulnerable people can have major consequences on the well-being of patients."

Earlier this week figures showed that in the past year there had been a 5.4% rise in the number of people here waiting to see a health specialist for the first time.

At the end of September, 16.3% (39,557) of patients were waiting more than a year for a first consultant-led outpatient appointment.

The Health and Social Care Board described the figures as "unacceptable".

Mr Butler added: "It is very well-known that patients who are seen quickly have better outcomes than those who have to wait.

"In fact, the local Health and Social Care Board has even warned that 'increased waiting times for assessment may result in delayed diagnosis of a serious or life-threatening condition, with reduced likelihood of a successful outcome'.

"The Health Minister, and the Executive collectively, urgently need to recognise that we are in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis.

"Rather than hiding behind uncosted and vague plans, they need to take action now to ensure that patient safety is not further compromised," Mr Butler insisted.

Belfast Telegraph

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