Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland A&E waiting time increase 'an unprecedented risk to care and safety,' say medics

Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

The number of patients waiting over 12 hours in Northern Ireland A&Es has doubled in the past year.

Department of Health statistics for the last quarter demonstrated the "unprecedented risks to quality of care and patient safety," there was over the summer, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine said.

Between September 2018 and September 2019, the number waiting longer than 12 hours increased from 1,714 to 3,482. That was almost 5% of all those attending a hospital emergency department.

There were 214,685 people attending A&E in the last quarter - almost 10,000 more than the same quarter in 2018.  Two thirds (67%) of those were treated, discharged or admitted to a ward within four hours. That was down on the same quarter in 2018 which saw 71% treated in same time frame.

Those that were treated and discharged home had an average wait of just over two-and-a-half hours. While those admitted to a ward waited almost seven-and-a-half hours - over an hour more than in September 2018.

Dr Ian Crawford, vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said as winter approached they had to expect there would be more patients waiting longer for care in increasingly over-crowded emergency departments.

“As I understand it, there is no additional funding forthcoming this year to support winter preparedness," he said.

" In practical terms, it is simply impossible for our emergency department teams to be expected to deliver more with less year on year.

“Those leading the ongoing review of urgent and emergency care must be cognisant that seeking to do things differently or more efficiently will not offset the need for corrective investment to increase staffing, the number of acute hospital beds and the social care that are fundamentally required to meet the health and social care needs of our growing and ageing population.”

A major review of healthcare has recommended sweeping reform of the system in Northern Ireland which has been stymied by the ongoing political impasse.

Department of Health chief Richard Pengelly has warned the service is "heading over the cliff edge" into a "full-blown crisis" with decisions needing made on what vital services get funding over other equally vital services.

A statement from the Department of Health said the statistics show a significant increase in the number of patients attending A&E.

"It is inevitable that demand for services will increase further over the winter period and, whilst additional measures will be put in place to address the need, it is anticipated that the months ahead will be extremely challenging for Emergency Departments and the dedicated staff who work there," said the statement.

"To help ensure limited services are used to best effect it is important the public understand how they should seek help. If you are seriously ill or injured, then the Emergency Department is the place to go, no matter how busy it may be.

"If you attend an ED, you will be assessed – triaged – as quickly as possible, with the most urgent medical cases given the greatest priority. If you are not assessed as urgent you may have to wait for a lengthy period," it said.

"If you do not need emergency care, a range of alternative services is available.  These include using the online A-Z symptom checker, seeking advice from a pharmacist, going to a Minor Injury Unit, or contacting a GP or the GP Out of Hours services - if your medical condition can’t wait until the GP surgery reopens."

On Wednesday former UUP leader Lord Empey introduced a Private Member's Bill in the Lords with the aim of transferring Northern Ireland's health powers to Westminster to help bring about the reforms needed.

He described the health service here as being in the midst of its worst ever waiting times crisis.

"It is a tragedy that so many people – young and old - are coming to harm because they can’t get the right type of treatment when they need it," he said.

"My party has repeatedly warned over recent years that our waiting times would simply not be tolerated in any other part of the United Kingdom.

"Our health workers are doing the best that they can, but in reality we have long since passed the point of staff being able to solve the monumental problems in the local health service."

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