MLA warns of ‘bleak winter’ as she seeks more support for patients whose surgery is shelved
Health bosses are preparing to cancel a raft of operations as the pressure mounts on our fragile health service.
A senior source said they expect the cancellations to happen “imminently” as the number of Covid patients being admitted to hospital continues to rise.
There were 409 Covid-occupied beds across the system on Wednesday, up from 331 at the start of October, and numbers are expected to grow in coming weeks, which is likely to put additional strain on intensive care units.
It is understood a proportion of planned surgeries are to be shelved to free up staff and beds ahead of the potential rise in emergency admissions and seriously ill patients.
It has prompted Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw, a member of the Stormont health committee, to call for alternative support to ensure people aren’t left suffering in pain.
“All of our fears for a long and bleak winter are being realised by the day,” she said.
“The potential cancellation of more surgeries will send fear right across the health and social care system, and the impact on patients, many whom have been waiting far too long already, will be catastrophic.
“Communication will need to be timely and explicit so that patients aren’t left wondering what is happening with their care.”
Dr Alan Stout, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, warned health bosses must put in place arrangements for affected patients to prevent a deluge of demand on already under-pressure GP surgeries.
“These people who need surgery don’t suddenly get better,” he said.
“They need someone to look after them and manage their conditions while they’re on waiting lists.
“A lot of these patients have very complex conditions and quite often they deteriorate as they wait for their surgery or treatment.
“GPs are expected to manage that, but it requires a large amount of work trying to make sure these patients have the care they need until they get their operation and that all increases GPs’ workload, making it even more difficult to see all the patients who need our attention.
“We want the trusts to implement a point of contact for patients whose operations are cancelled, so they can go back to the trusts with any problems or concerns they have.”
It comes as Dr Stout said health bosses had refused to switch off comments underneath social media posts warning of long wait times in A&E.
Appeals to the public to only attend A&E have become an almost daily occurrence in recent months and frequently attract hundreds of posts blaming GPs for the crisis in emergency medicine.
The growing tide of abuse aimed at family doctors and their staff is due to be discussed at the GPs’ annual conference this weekend.
Dr Stout said: “This is causing a massive difficulty for practices at the moment. There is nothing worse than being under pressure all day, taking a lot of difficult phone calls and dealing with abuse from patients, struggling to get through your workload, and then reading criticism on social media at the end of the day too.
“It shouldn’t happen to doctors, but it’s also impacting on our staff, which is unacceptable.
“There seems to be a perception among some patients that they shouldn’t have to answer a few questions from receptionists that help us prioritise appointments. Abuse aimed at GPs is now widespread and the social media posts from trusts open a floodgate as soon as the messages go up.
“We’ve asked the trusts to disable the comment section but they’ve told us the comments help them spread the message; they also told us they can’t because of freedom of speech.”
Doctors at the Conference of Representatives of Northern Ireland Local Medical Committees will debate whether trusts should take more responsibility for policing the “defamatory” comments being made on their social media accounts.
Members will also discuss the potential introduction of a formal policy to allow GP surgeries to remove from their lists those patients involved in online abuse.
Dr Stout added: “The whole system is under enormous pressure at the moment and general practice is no exception.
“When a GP surgery is struggling, patients see it when they spend a long time waiting to get through on the phone, but we are all doing our best.”
The Health & Social Care Board said “services continue to be significantly constrained by the continuing impact of Covid-19 and the need to protect the public and staff from the virus”.
“Whilst numbers in ICUs have increased, no decisions have yet been taken to cancel sessions next week,” it added..
“Cancelling operations are a last resort and extremely regrettable, and every effort is made to minimise this.”