Patient had 11-hour wait for ambulance

The Royal Victoria hospital
The Royal Victoria hospital

The number of patients waiting 12 hours or more to be seen in A&E has dropped, health bosses said on Monday.

On Monday at 9am, there were 40 patients waiting more than half a day, but this had fallen to one by the same time on Wednesday – with the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) saying “the situation across the region has improved”.

It comes after widely-reported problems at hospitals across Northern Ireland, with particular pressure placed on A&E departments and a raft of cancelled operations.

However, the number of patients who have experienced cancelled surgery remained unknown on Wednesday, with the Board unable to provide even a rough figure.

The Ulster Unionists said that the recent problems are just part of “a wider crisis” in the NHS.

Michael McGimpsey, MLA for south Belfast, said: “As a direct result of decisions to underfund the most essential components of the health service, our hospitals are being crippled by a debilitating shortage of beds and staff.

“The minister and those around him must accept that this is the reality and act upon it. The current situation is untenable with it becoming increasingly unfair on our brilliant but struggling health workers.”

Meanwhile Sinn Fein’s Maeve McLaughlin, MLA for Foyle, said: “What we are currently seeing in emergency departments in hospitals across the North is only the shop window of the problems in the system...

“Health minister Jim Wells needs to intervene as a matter of urgency to address the problems in the system so that we do not see a repeat of what is happening at present.”

A statement from the Department of Health said: “The minister is fully aware of increased pressures across the health system over the Christmas period...

“The minister looks to the HSCB and HSC Trusts to continue to work together to significantly improve performance.

“In tandem with all of this, the minister encourages everyone to use urgent and emergency care services appropriately to avoid adding pressure on to an already busy system.”

Asked for an update on the situation, the HSCB (which is in charge of commissioning services from the Province’s five health trusts) sent through a statement at 7pm on Wednesday night.

It said the activity in emergency departments was up by seven per cent on the previous year.

A spokeswoman for the Belfast Trust (which runs emergency departments in both the Mater and Royal Victoria hospitals) said there appeared to be “no explanation” for the surge in demand for their A&E services.

However, anecdotal evidence suggests the city’s hospitals have been seeing more elderly patients, and more fractures.

The Trust began cancelling surgeries at the weekend due partly to the pressure which the surge in A&E patients has placed on beds.

As more emergency patients are admitted, it leaves fewer beds for those who were supposed to undergo elective (non-urgent) surgery.

In addition, she said it is taking longer to discharge patients because they are sicker.

Although they have seen similar situations in the past in Belfast, the spokeswoman added: “It’s very seldom you’d get all five trusts near enough in the same boat, at the same time”.

In its statement, the HSCB said that it is monitoring the situation closely.

It said that “trusts continue to implement their escalation plans to increase capacity to improve the flow of patients within hospitals”.

As well as the postponement of some surgery, this involves creating in-patient bed capacity, bringing in additional staff to care for patients and help with discharges, and doing additional ward rounds and reviews of patients.

It said any cancelled operations will be rescheduled as soon as possible.