A&E staff need help of public
The health service in Northern Ireland is under extreme pressure at the moment trying to meet the demands of patients in general practice and in accident and emergency departments.
It is always a very difficult time of year, with an increase in flu-like illnesses and respiratory conditions such as pneumonia.
The health service plans for this by vaccinating a significant proportion of the population against influenza and by having extra staff on duty to meet these demands. GP out-of-hours services received increased funding to meet these needs but demand has gone up by 18% in the last five years.
There has been considerable pressure on A&E departments, where the situation is exacerbated by the difficulties with patient flow into and out of hospital, resulting in trolley waits. Neither the public nor health service staff want this situation, so we need to use our resources efficiently.
The current situation is difficult as we have increasing numbers of frail elderly with chronic diseases. These patients need more consultations and admissions to hospital during this time. Some people are also increasing their demands unreasonably, looking for instant appointments for routine illnesses that would normally come under the category of self-care. This is placing an increased strain on the service and is blocking access for older people with genuine needs.
Health service staff are working hard in a very difficult environment trying to meet the needs of vulnerable patients. Action is being taken within hospitals and general practice to increase the number of appointments available for those in urgent need. However, we need the co-operation of the public if we are to prioritise care appropriately.
I would encourage patients to practise self-care or attend their community pharmacist for advice for illnesses such as sore throats, coughs and colds. This will leave appointments free for the elderly and those with chronic diseases with urgent needs.
The situation could yet become more difficult and we need to remember that the health service is a community resource that is shared by the citizens of Northern Ireland.
It's going to be a long winter.
Dr Tom Black is Northern Ireland council deputy chair of the British Medical Association