Belfast Telegraph

NHS crisis: Overworked Northern Ireland nurses in tears and patients with no hope of being seen

By Lisa Smyth

More than a hundred people waiting for treatment, nurses reduced to tears, a doctor so frustrated he tells patients to go home before they are seen.

It is hardly the standard of healthcare people across Northern Ireland expect and yet this was the stark reality in one emergency department (ED) over the Christmas period.

The situation at Antrim Area Hospital has been so extreme that health bosses took the unprecedented step of asking St John Ambulance volunteers to help staff care for patients on New Year's Eve.

And on New Year's Day the Northern Health and Social Care Trust issued a plea on social media asking any available nurses to come into work yesterday.

It came just days after a member of staff at the hospital was left disgusted by the scenes of chaos in its ED.

"There were over 100 people sitting in the waiting room," she said.

"There were patients lying all over the place on trolleys waiting for beds, but there was nowhere for them to go.

"It was so bad I saw nurses standing crying, and at one point one of the doctors got so fed up he went out to the waiting room and told everyone they weren't going to be seen anytime soon, so unless it was an absolute emergency they should go home, go to see their GP or the out-of-hours GP, or go to a pharmacist.

"I think about 10 or 12 people stood up and walked out."

Patients who had the misfortune to require medical treatment in Antrim's ED over Christmas have, without exception, praised the dedication of the staff working in the unit.

One woman has said she was tended by a nurse who had been working for almost 12 hours, who had no breaks, and had only managed to eat a sandwich at a desk between patients.

It is true that there have been inappropriate attendances - one man actually turned up at Antrim's ED looking for E45 cream.

However, according to Janice Smyth of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), her members have told her the majority of patients arriving at EDs across Northern Ireland were genuinely unwell and required medical assistance.

She said the measures taken by the Northern Health and Social Care Trust over the past week have highlighted the fact the health service here is at crisis point - compromising the health and well-being of staff and putting the safety of patients at risk.

"I think the decision to invite St John Ambulance in to help was not a decision they took lightly, but it just demonstrates how desperate they have become," she said.

"And putting a post out on Twitter and Facebook asking already overworked nurses to come in and work on their days off also reveals how bad things are.

"I think the Western Trust did the same thing last year, but at the same time they declared a major incident, so I think it is very interesting the same step has not been taken this year."

Of course, the Northern Trust is not the only health trust that has struggled to cope with demand over the festive period.

Ms Smyth, who visited a number of EDs over the holidays to meet with members and hear first-hand about the conditions under which they were working, said the situation is at crisis point across all hospitals. Even more depressing, it is not just the EDs which have come under intolerable strain.

The difficulties they are facing are just a symptom of a situation threatening the future of the NHS.

With a four-day bank holiday, the GP out-of-hours service also struggled to cope - patients in the Southern Trust waited up to 34 hours to be seen.

And in the Northern Trust on Christmas Eve patients could expect to wait up to eight hours for a call back, and a further 12-hour wait to be seen by a doctor.

Throughout the day there were 400 calls pending in the system at any one time.

With fewer beds available in hospitals, less funding for community care packages and a reduction in beds in the community, it is becoming harder and harder to discharge patients from wards - creating a bottleneck in our EDs.

More than one year ago - to much fanfare - the then Health Minister Michelle O'Neill launched the Bengoa Report, which outlined a promising vision to secure the future of the health service.

However, with no Health Minister to press ahead with the Bengoa Report and no realistic prospect of an Assembly in the near future, the NHS in Northern Ireland will remain on life support.

Belfast Telegraph

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