A&E staff ‘struggling to keep heads above water’ as waiting times soar
Emergency departments here are "fighting to keep their heads above water", after a massive rise in the number of patients waiting over 12 hours in December, a leading medical body has warned.
Figures released by the Department of Health (DoH) reveal that 2,372 (3.6%) patients waited more than 12 hours in local A&E departments in December 2017.
This represents a staggering 167% rise on December 2016, when 888 patients endured the marathon delay.
Antrim Area Hospital had the highest number of patients who endured a 12-hour wait (652), while only the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children's emergency department hit the target of having no patients waiting up to 12 hours last December.
And just 67.7% of patients across all emergency departments were treated and discharged or admitted within four hours - falling considerably short of the 95% target.
There were 65,204 attendances at emergency departments in Northern Ireland in December - an increase of 5% (3,111) on December 2016. Of these, 12,890 were emergency admissions. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine Northern Ireland's vice president Sean McGovern said emergency department staff were "fighting to keep their heads above water in the most challenging of times".
"Patients and staff deserve better. We should be able to plan and adequately care for our growing and ageing population, despite infectious illnesses and despite the time of the year," he said.
"However, insufficient health and social care resources to match patient needs has resulted in compromised patient safety, emergency department crowding and declining 12-hour performance on a daily basis.
"Staffing emergency departments safely with the correct numbers of medical, nursing, allied health professionals and support staff has been extremely challenging."
The A&E department at the Royal Victoria Hospital was the busiest here last December, with 8,013 attendances, followed by 7,869 at the Ulster Hospital.
Patients at the Causeway Hospital endured the longest average emergency department waiting times (eight hours 18 minutes) from arrival to admission, while the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children reported the shortest (three hours 38 minutes).
Mr McGovern called on the Department of Health to "tackle the spiralling problems facing emergency care" and warned "urgent intervention" is needed. He said that the situation here is exacerbated by the lack of political leadership.
Sinn Fein health spokesman Pat Sheehan slammed the A&E waiting times as "unacceptable".
"Staff shortages as well as increased demand on services have contributed to this situation and emergency departments faced particular pressure on services over the October to December period," he said.
"Existing staff shortages need addressed through retention and recruitment in the short-term. The pressure on emergency departments and elsewhere in the system must be addressed through the transformation envisaged in Michelle O'Neill's Delivering Together plan."
UUP MLA Roy Beggs said that the health service in Northern Ireland had "long since passed the point of being in a full-scale crisis" but claimed "nothing is being done to address it".
He continued: "We still don't have enough beds, we still don't have enough staff and we still don't have enough adequate community care packages. It is likely things will continue to get worse.
"In the absence of a minister and the Assembly Health Committee, the health department here isn't under scrutiny at all."
Asked if the lack of a Health Minister is exacerbating the situation by preventing the implementation of reform, a DoH spokesperson said: "Work has not stalled and we continue to make progress where we can and forward proposals for change.
"However, difficult decisions will be required and the nature of those decisions and their impact on the population warrants Ministerial consideration."
Seasonal flu, respiratory conditions, the norovirus and staff sickness contributed to the increases in waiting times.
A spokesperson added: "The long-term answer to the pressures we are facing in emergency departments, and throughout primary, secondary and community care, will only come through continued reform of services."