Belfast Telegraph

Lisa Smyth: A&Es just echo sorry state of affairs throughout Northern Ireland's crumbling healthcare system

Northern Ireland's emergency departments are back in the headlines. The widespread industrial action and the Christmas break have undoubtedly taken their toll on an already crumbling health service
Northern Ireland's emergency departments are back in the headlines. The widespread industrial action and the Christmas break have undoubtedly taken their toll on an already crumbling health service
Lisa Smyth

By Lisa Smyth

Northern Ireland's emergency departments are back in the headlines. The widespread industrial action and the Christmas break have undoubtedly taken their toll on an already crumbling health service.

As a result more than 400 people waited longer than 12 hours in casualty units between Thursday and Friday and burnt-out staff have resorted to posting on social media to highlight their exhaustion and desperation.

It is a sorry of state of affairs - but is anyone surprised?

I am sorry to say that I have had more than my fair share of time spent in hospitals in recent months and it is clear the health service is understaffed and morale is at rock bottom.

Did you know, for example, that there is one pain team - made up of a handful of nursing staff - serving the whole of the Royal Victoria Hospital, Northern Ireland's regional trauma hospital, at any one time?

This meant I had to watch my husband post-surgery in indescribable agony for more than 30 hours while we waited for the specialist team to become available.

I have listened to nurses and senior doctors expressing their frustration and anger at the broken system in which they work and apologising for failings that are not their fault.

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I have seen doctors treating babies little more than a few months old in the corridors of busy emergency departments.

I have overheard them telling nurses to administer medication to babies lying in prams because they have no idea when a bed will become available.

I commiserated with one mum who had spent four hours nursing her two-year-old son with a suspected broken ankle before he was finally seen by a doctor.

My own husband spent three hours sitting in a busy A&E waiting room after turning up with a broken neck, before he was finally taken for an X-ray and placed on a spinal board to stop him from being paralysed.

One of the most senior emergency medicine doctors in Northern Ireland, Dr Ian Crawford, has said he cannot cite a specific example where a patient has died due to their experience in A&E. However, it is difficult to imagine that no one has come to serious harm. The health trusts are at pains to ask the public to use the health service appropriately and there are the usual examples of people turning up at emergency departments with a cough and a runny nose.

While I have no doubt that this is putting an additional burden on the overstretched emergency services, I know from experience that sometimes there is simply nowhere else to turn.

I ended up in a casualty department with my young son late last year when he had a nasty case of conjunctivitis.

I know it was hardly a matter of life and death, but we had already made multiple visits to the pharmacist who eventually recommended we seek advice from our GP after over-the-counter medication failed to clear the infection.

The surgery was unable to offer us an appointment in the next 48 hours, so I was left with no option but to take him to a minor injuries unit. I rang ahead to make sure there was such a service at the hospital and was advised to bring my son in, so I was dismayed when we arrived and we were led into the paediatric A&E instead.

I was particularly embarrassed given the number of articles I have written over the years about people turning up at A&E when they do not need to be there.

We experienced similar issues over the Christmas period when my husband suffered complications following his spinal surgery.

With no appointments available with the practice nurse, he ended up in the emergency department on a number of occasions.

I even spent several hours one fraught morning listening to an engaged tone while trying to get through to the GP out-of-hours service. Eventually I rang the ward where my husband had been treated, hoping they would see him directly, but they advised him to make his way to A&E instead.

Our emergency departments exist to treat the most dangerously sick people.

But while the rest of the health service struggles to cope with demand, in my experience, they are not a last resort but the only resort to an increasing number of people.

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