A&E cuts are a fatal mistake
The tragic deaths of five patients at the Royal Victoria Hospital's A&E unit during the last year due to a shortage of doctors – according to the Belfast Trust – is proof that the Department of Health's plan to tackle the shortfall has failed.
The build-up to the current crisis started when the department decided to close Belfast City Hospital's A&E unit, blaming that – ironically – on a shortage of doctors.
This was followed by the closure of A&E units at the Lagan Valley and Downe hospitals at weekends and at night without dealing with what caused the doctors' shortage in the first place. The closure of these units resulted in a bigger workload for staff at A&E units that remained open 24/7.
Staff problems have been compounded by Department of Health plans to transfer care from the hospitals to the community, which involves closure of hospital beds.
So far, 18% of Northern Ireland hospital beds have been closed, with 180 more to go by 2017, leaving fewer beds for an increasing number of patients.
This has increased pressure on A&E nurses, who have to treat more patients on trolleys while they wait on beds in the wards.
Besides ever-increasing paperwork, the extra demand on beds puts more pressure on ward nurses and other professionals to free beds for patients waiting in A&E.
This does not only indicate that the closure of A&E departments to deal with the doctors' shortage was a mistake, it also indicates that the plan to transfer care from the hospitals to the community is another nightmare-in-waiting.
Instead of closing A&E units, the Department should focus on how to recruit and retain emergency doctors. This includes having the right number of doctors, so that none suffers burn-out.
Given that a survey found that 25% of emergency doctors in Australia were trained in the UK, giving incentives to doctors to stay here is important – especially when most of them want to stay, but find there are no vacancies for them. Taking the right steps to tackle the A&E crisis is essential to preventing more tragic hospital deaths.