The Department of Health’s latest Emergency Care Waiting Time Statistics showed that between June 2021 and 2022, the number of patients waiting over 12 hours in emergency departments (EDs) before being admitted to hospital increased from 5,488 to 8,192.
This was despite there being nearly 5% fewer patients attending an emergency department due to the introduction of ‘Phone First’ and Urgent Care Centre services.
The median time patients who were admitted to hospital spent in an emergency department was 12 hours 35 minutes last month, which was three hours 26 minutes more than the same month last year.
Those not admitted to hospital typically spent three hours 45 minutes in emergency care.
The longest median wait time from arrival to hospital admission was at Altnagelvin – 19 hours 52 minutes – while the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children had the shortest time – five hours two minutes.
Dr Paul Kerr, vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine NI, said: “The situation in emergency care is extremely challenging, and the pressures staff face mean we are not providing optimal care to patients. To see these figures in the middle of summer makes for grim reading and causes serious apprehension for what is to come as we approach winter.”
He said that emergency departments are “dangerously crowded” and many staff are “burned out and exhausted”.
Dr Kerr said: “The government must prioritise tackling this crisis. Patients are suffering and coming to harm and staff are overwhelmed. The first step is to recruit and retain staff in the social care workforce and ensuring they are valued and respected.”
Royal College of Nursing NI director Rita Devlin said: “As the RCN has been pointing out for many years, the continuing escalation of emergency care waiting times is a symptom of a broken health and social care system.”
She added: “At the heart of this crisis is the fact that there are simply not enough nurses to provide the level of care that the people of Northern Ireland are entitled to expect.
“Until we are prepared to invest in our health and social care system and the people who provide that care, waiting times and patient experience will continue to deteriorate even beyond the current unacceptable level.”
A Department of Health spokesperson said the long waits were due to the fact that most hospitals are operating at, or above, bed capacity.
The spokesperson said that “emerging outcomes are positive” from the health minister’s pilot initiatives such as Phone First, Urgent Care Centres, Direct Access Pathways and Hospital at Home.