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Doctors’ organisations deeply concerned about winter period

By Catherine Reilly - 16th Nov 2021

Doctors and nurses pulling hospital trolley,

The prediction of a severe influenza season on top of continued Covid-19 pressures and emergency department overcrowding could result in the “most challenging winter in years”, the IHCA has warned.

It comes following a statement from the IMO yesterday that hospitals and GP services are facing a “traumatic winter”.

The organisations were responding to the publication of the HSE Winter Plan.

The IHCA stated today that “strategic, empathetic leadership” is needed to deliver multi-annual plans for the health service with devolved local decision-making and implementation “at its core”.

Commenting on the publication of the HSE Winter Plan 2021-22, Prof Alan Irvine, President of the IHCA, said: “The provision of an additional €77 million announced in the Winter Plan 2021-2022 is indeed welcome, but we fear it will not adequately address the serious challenges we are now facing.

“This is the second winter of Covid-19 and is unlikely to be the last. Without the strategic, empathetic leadership needed to bring forward multi-annual plans that are delivered through devolved, local decision making and implementation, we risk slipping back into pre-pandemic stagnation and not learning from the challenges faced during the pandemic.

“The continued trend of sluggish, centralised and politically driven decisions is losing precious time for those of us on the ground and for our patients.

“The very fact that the Winter Plan has been published in mid-November, whilst the service is already bearing the brunt of increased pressures and winter illnesses, does not invoke confidence or trust in our health service management.

“In fact, it only shortens the time period that we have to put in place effective measures to address the winter surge in hospital admissions resulting from the circulation of Covid-19, influenza and other respiratory viruses at the same time. The equally slow pace of decision and action on Covid-19 booster jabs is also playing out in hospitals, with many healthcare staff at risk of being or currently out with the virus.

“The Winter Plan cannot now deliver on the beds promised in the time given. The numbers are evident as we now see a gap of around 350 desperately needed acute hospital beds – and we are already feeling the effects of that shortfall. Incredibly, after 20 months of the pandemic and many additional billions of euro allocated to the HSE budget, we have fewer ICU beds on a population basis than in 2009.

“Nor does this Winter Plan provide clear investment or actions to recruit the professionals required to fill beds with patients and treat them with the timely care they need.

“Additional consultants need to be appointed, on terms to be agreed with their representative bodies, together with more facilities and better infrastructure to take Ireland’s acute public hospitals and patients through the difficult months – and years – ahead.

“In an already overstretched public hospital service, these shortfalls will make addressing the continuing increases in demand for care in our public hospitals even more challenging, at a time when our staff and patients are exhausted by stress, delays and Covid-19.”

Yesterday, the IMO warned that hospitals and GP services are facing a traumatic winter. It has described the Winter Plan as “inadequate” to meet the challenges faced.

Dr Ina Kelly, President of the IMO, said: “This plan was launched at a time when we have only 21 ICU beds available in the country.  Every doctor and healthcare worker is working beyond capacity right now and it is untenable that they are being asked to face into a winter with insufficient support.”

 “Covid has exposed the long-term cost of failing to invest in our health services.  Our only response now seems to be to try to force more work out of our exhausted doctors. We have 700 vacant consultant posts meaning huge extra pressure on those consultants we do have.  We have NCHDs working excessive and illegal hours putting them under enormous strain, and we have GP services facing unprecedented demand from patients.  The capacity is simply not there to meet demand and it is not all Covid related.”

Dr Kelly said that the root causes of the Irish health crisis remained bed numbers and manpower.  “The Winter Plan is like using a sticking plaster to cover a gaping wound.  Our health services remain crippled by a lack of bed capacity on the one hand and a lack of doctors and other healthcare professionals on the other and until we fix these two problems, we will forever be trying to prevent a crisis becoming a catastrophe.”

Dr Kelly also warned that the waiting lists would exceed one million patients within the coming months. “What an horrendous milestone to mark and what a sad reflection of failed healthcare policies over the past decade.”

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