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Province's stricken health service pushed to breaking point

MEDICAL chiefs at one of Northern Ireland's leading hospitals - the Ulster at Dundonald - told today of their battle to overcome Northern Ireland's beds and nursing shortage crisis.

MEDICAL chiefs at one of Northern Ireland's leading hospitals - the Ulster at Dundonald - told today of their battle to overcome Northern Ireland's beds and nursing shortage crisis.

Bosses at the hospital gave the Belfast Telegraph access to its wards - each crying out for more nurses and cash to cope with the huge influx of patients.

In a dramatic move to bring the crisis under control, senior nurse advisors and human resource managers will hold emergency talks today to try and find a solution to the massive staffing problems.

Over a fifth of the nursing staff is off sick with flu and similar infections - 250 out of the hospital's 1,200 nurses.

There is also a desperate shortage of specially trained nurses to provide life-saving care in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

The grim reality of the scale of the problem is hard to take in.

As patients queue up for urgent treatment in the Accident and Emergency department at the Ulster Hospital, many are forced to wait on trolleys and some in chairs because there aren't any free beds.

A similar shocking picture can be seen in the packed Intensive Care Unit - with two patients being cared for in the recovering ward due to the lack of beds in ICU.

It costs around an astonishing £250,000 to open a bed in the ward.

Vital 24-hour treatment is needed for patients fighting for their lives and a lack of ICU nurses is adding more strain to the already crippled service.

Cancer operations at the hospital have also been postponed this week because there no free beds.

Dr Jim McFarland, a Medical Director of the Hospital, told the full extent of the problem today, revealing nearly a 30% rise on emergency admissions compared to this time last year.

"This is probably the busiest winter compared to the last five or six winters. The last comparable one was in 1989 with the last true flu epidemic."

Describing the scene of patients waiting for beds on trolleys and in chairs as "not humane", he added: "We are having to take extraordinary measures to cope with this. There are basically two problems - the availability of beds for emergency medical admissions and the availability of intensive care beds. These are clearly inter-related problems. Even if we did have the beds, we don't have the nurses."

On a daily basis, staff at the hospital's A&E department are treating nearly twice the amount of patients the unit can hold.

Dr McFarland today voiced concern for the welfare of his staff, who are working extra hours to help ease the workload.

"Nurses are obviously stressed and are not taking days off. Some are even coming in sick themselves. The area needs to be addressed very urgently."

Calling for a "review of intensive care provision", Dr McFarland added: "We are under considerable pressure in the intensive care unit and it has a knock-on effect in other areas."

Professor Sydney Salmon, Director of Nursing at the hospital, said an urgent cash injection was needed.

Speaking before today's crunch meeting to discuss staffing levels, she said there is not enough appropriately trained staff to do the job.

"These emergency talks are for emergency measures. More funding for nurses and more beds is required - it's as simple as that.

"We have been at crisis point for a while now and are now at breaking point with the nursing workforce. We are dealing with this daily and not getting extra resources to deal with it. It is very worrying."

While the Ulster Hospital is struggling to cope, a similar pattern has emerged across the province with signs the problem is getting worse.

All of Ulster's top hospitals have agreed to limit the number of non-urgent surgical admissions for the next week to help ease the pressure.

And hospitals are working with the health boards on ways of attracting nurses back into the workplace to cope with the current crisis.

Bosses at the Mater Hospital in Belfast today praised its staff for working flat out over the last few weeks.

The Belfast Telegraph revealed the shocking full extent of the hospital's bed crisis earlier this week.

Patricia Gordon, Chief Executive of the Mater, said: "The service has been under great strain with patient numbers nearly doubling on the same period last year - we owe all our staff a debt of gratitude for their professionalism."

Musgrave Park Hospital has been forced to open beds to relieve the pressure on emergency beds at the Ulster, Royal and Belfast City Hospitals.

A spokesman for the Royal said today: "It's been tough but we are getting there - thanks to the efforts of staff."

But he warned employees are struggling to cope with the crisis.

He revealed 100 nurses out of 2,000 are off sick.

"The longer it goes on - with staff continuing to become ill - it will get worse."

Services at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry have also been hit because of staff sickness and a shortage of beds.

While the hospitals battle to contain the situation, the Health Minister Bairbre de Brun has vowed to do come up with cash to tackle the crisis.

Speaking during a visit to the Mater Hospital yesterday, she said nurses from agencies will be brought in to support services.

She pledged: "I will also seek the necessary resources to ensure that effective action it taken."

It is understood the money for the cash-strapped hospitals will be taken from the department's Social Services and Public Safety budget of over £2bn.

The minister also praised hospital staff for their dedication during "these exceptional pressures".

"I am monitoring the situation daily and will not hesitate to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that our services will cope with this crisis."