Extra hospital beds ‘will not solve health crisis’

Prof Donal O’Shea says obesity levels are driving the current trolley emergency

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with presenter Kathryn Thomas at Croke Park during an event for ‘Operation Transformation’ community leaders. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with presenter Kathryn Thomas at Croke Park during an event for ‘Operation Transformation’ community leaders. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

Creating more hospital bed places is a “short-term solution” to the current crisis in the health service, in which hospitals have become a “receiving ground” for every problem, a senior consultant has said.

Prof Donal O’Shea, a consultant endocrinologist and the Health Service Executive’s clinical lead on obesity, said extra beds in hospitals would help the situation but that we needed to “change our approach to public health”.

The Government’s long-awaited review of capacity requirements in hospitals has found that between 7,000 and 9,000 additional hospital beds will be required over the next decade or so if the existing model of healthcare continues.

It concluded, however, that the number of additional beds needed could be reduced to 2,000-2,500 in the years up to 2030 if the Sláintecare reform proposals, such as investing heavily in healthcare services in the community, are implemented.

Speaking to The Irish Times at the launch of the Government’s Healthy Ireland campaign in Dublin on Saturday, Prof O’Shea said adding new beds into the system was “a short-term solution”.

“It’s like buying more fire brigades to deal with forest fires without addressing the cause of the forest fires,” he said.

Prof O’Shea said obesity was our biggest public health problem, affecting every economic and age group and driving the trolley crisis in hospitals.

He said the trolley crisis was being fuelled by “the common things”, such as people having heart attacks and strokes, alcohol-related injuries, and the ageing population.

“People say, ‘How do we solve the trolley crisis?’ Well, you solve the trolley crisis by having less illness, and when you reduce obesity you will reduce all over our chronic diseases – diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke.

“I work on the frontline on call so I see the trolley crisis on a weekly basis and the solution is to get our public health system better resourced and that’s what Healthy Ireland is all about.

“There is a short-term crisis, and as a short-term solution, extra beds is going to help. But we need to change our approach to public health. We need to change the focus of where we manage illness, so more of it can be managed in primary care and we need to change our attitudes to death and dying and where that can happen,” he said.

‘Not sustainable’

Prof O’Shea said 40 per cent of people now died in acute hospitals and this was “not sustainable”.

The consultant said primary care needed to be augmented, and while there were plans for this, they would take at least 10 years to implement.

“The other side of the equation is improving health, and you improve health by getting people out, getting people active, getting people eating healthier and consuming less liquid calories, both alcohol and sugar-sweetened drinks.”

The proposed minimum unit pricing for alcohol and the new sugar tax would help address these issues, he said.

The Healthy Ireland campaign focuses on three key areas: encouraging people to eat more healthily, to be more active, and to look after their mental wellbeing.

The campaign launch took place at Croke Park at an event for community leaders for the new series of RTÉ’s Operation Transformation, which follows five people over eight weeks as they work to improve their fitness, lifestyle and weight.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar attended the event and took part in a short question-and-answer session on stage with Operation Transformation presenter Kathryn Thomas. He declined to answer questions from reporters.