A&Es 'will turn more patients away as health crisis deepens'
Accident and emergency departments across Northern Ireland will be forced to shut their doors more frequently as the NHS slips deeper into financial crisis, it has been warned.
The deputy director of the Royal College of Nursing, Garrett Martin, said he expects A&Es to come under increasing pressures in coming months as budget cuts continue to take their toll on patient care in the province.
The A&E at the Mater Hospital was forced to close its doors to acutely ill people for almost 24 hours after being unable to cope with the number of people needing medical attention. Patients were taken to the Royal and City hospitals instead.
Hospitals have come under increasing pressure since before Christmas due to the heavy snowfall, water shortages and a flu outbreak across the province.
While the Mater’s casualty was finally reopened on Monday morning, bosses at the Belfast Trust have been forced to cancel a number of planned medical procedures to make more beds available for seriously ill patients.
They have also asked anyone who does not require emergency medical care to contact their GP instead of attending A&Es at any of Belfast’s acute hospitals.
A spokesman said: “We would prefer that patients did not have to wait for a bed and staff make every effort to organise this, but at times of high levels of pressure this is not always possible. However, we ensure that patients receive the appropriate assessment, care and treatment while they are waiting for a bed to become available.”
Mr Martin said the situation in the Belfast Trust is symptomatic of the difficulties being faced by the NHS and warned that people across Northern Ireland should brace themselves for services to deteriorate further.
“I can’t see it getting any better anytime soon,” he said.
“I have never seen things as bad in all my time working in the health service. Some of it is down to the usual winter pressures but a lot of it is as a result of the financial situation and staff are feeling particularly under pressure at the moment.
“There is no doubt that the NHS is getting by on the goodwill of staff. I wouldn’t like to think where it would be without the staff but that goodwill will only last so long. I think what is going on in A&E is symptomatic of how the rest of the health service is coping.”
Meanwhile, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said the diversion of patients away from the Mater Hospital was implemented to ensure patient safety.
He said: “From time to time the pressures in an A&E department may be so great that patients being brought to the hospital by ambulance are diverted to another site.
“This helps ensure that people who have medical emergencies are seen without undue delay.”
Bosses at the Belfast Trust implemented what is known as a divert protocol at the Mater Hospital’s A&E at lunchtime on Sunday until 9am on Monday.
When a divert is put in place, ambulance staff take acutely ill patients to other A&Es.
The Belfast Trust has denied swine flu was a major contributing factor in the lack of available beds over the weekend.
There will be an update on the number of people in critical care beds in Northern Ireland as a result of swine flu on Thursday.