That was the year that was for health

 

It was a baptism of fire for new Minister for Health James Reilly as he put reform at the top of the health agenda, writes JOANNE HUNT

January

Swine flu, bed closures and one of the harshest winters on record – for Ireland’s emergency departments, 2010 opens with a bang.

In the first week of the New Year, this perfect storm makes landfall in the country’s hospitals, with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) reporting a record 569 people on trolleys.

From the comfort of the opposition benches, Fine Gael spokesman on health, Dr James Reilly, throws stones at a government on its last legs, saying its “policy of hitting the frontline” had produced the crisis.

Just over a week later, Mary Harney, health minister since 2004, resigns.

February

February brings a bad dose of election fever, with promises tripping thick and fast from political tongues as we near polling day.

Dr James Reilly pledges that under his watch the existing “monster” of the HSE will be abolished, GP and hospital consultant contracts will be renegotiated and Ireland’s health system will go Dutch, with universal health insurance and free GP care for all, by 2016.

Meanwhile, taoiseach-in-waiting Enda Kenny is recorded making promises about Roscommon Hospital he may later regret.

March

Though March comes in like a lamb with the new government enjoying unprecedented popularity, it goes out like a lion when the board set up to oversee the development of the national children’s hospital suffers another embarrassing setback, losing its second chairman in less than six months.

Board chairman John Gallagher’s resignation comes as Minister for Health James Reilly states he is considering a review of the hospital’s location. Without a brick yet laid, the €650-million development has been dogged by controversy, with the previous chairman Philip Lynch describing the decision by Fianna Fáil to locate the hospital on the Mater site as politically motivated.

April

Easter week brings anguish to many parents with the results of the National Miscarriage Misdiagnosis Review.

It finds that in 24 cases of misdiagnosed miscarriages throughout the State, most are due to human error, with lack of training in early pregnancy ultrasound a problem for many hospitals.

Of the 24 women misdiagnosed as having miscarried, 22 went on to have healthy babies. However, two women had unwarranted surgical procedures and subsequently suffered a miscarriage.

Author of the report, Prof William Ledger, says it would be “impossible” to reassure many women that their pregnancies had ended as a result of miscarriage in the past if they had had only an ultrasound examination followed by a surgical procedure to evacuate the womb.

At the end of the month, the board of the HSE offers to resign during a meeting with the Minister for Health. The Minister says the boards put in place by his predecessor “put a distance between ministers and their responsibilities. I’m shortening that chain of command with this new change today and I believe that will be for the betterment of patients.”

May

In May, it emerges that money allocated for the running of the Fair Deal nursing home support scheme has already run out. At the end of April, more than 22,000 older people were receiving financial support under the scheme and the money available for 2011 does not allow for any net increase on that figure.

May means back to school for doctors too, with the announcement that they will be required to enrol in professional competence schemes throughout their careers and fulfil new requirements set by the Irish Medical Council.

June

After allegations that five elderly residents were beaten, kicked and abused by a male care assistant since 2008, the private Rostrevor nursing home in Rathgar is taken over by the HSE.

Weeks later, the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) moves to close Creevelea nursing home in Co Meath when seven residents are found to be at risk of hypothermia.

At the half-way point of the year, it’s revealed that hospitals across the State have run up debts of €99 million in the first four months of 2010.

The Minister warns them, “We’ve all got to live within the budget that we have been given.”

Meanwhile, a shortage of junior doctors reaches critical levels and Dr Reilly pledges to make it easier for foreign-trained medics to work here.

July

A lack of co-ordination between those trying to find air transport for 14-year-old Leitrim girl Meadhbh McGivern contributes to her missing an opportunity to have a long-awaited liver transplant. The Minister for Health announces an inquiry.

Fine Gael is forced to rue its pre-election promise when it closes emergency services at Roscommon Hospital in July, describing the emergency department at the hospital as “unsafe”.

A recording of the Taoiseach on the election trail in February, revealing promises to maintain services at the hospital, delivered Fianna Fáil the chance to see its successors squirm.

A Medical Council fitness-to-practise inquiry hears that a junior doctor trained in Romania and recruited to work at Letterkenny General Hospital could not take a patient’s pulse.

The Government approves the Mater hospital site as the location for the new children’s hospital.

August

August proves a bad month for patient privacy when a woman walking her dog finds dozens of files relating to patients at the Midland Regional Hospital in Mullingar in a bin outside Roscommon General Hospital.

About a week later, medical records of a number of patients who attended St Joseph’s District Hospital in Ballina, Co Mayo, are discovered in the bin of a local housing estate.

Towards the close of the month, clinical information from Sligo General Hospital is found in a sack in a bog near Tuam.

An ongoing Hiqa investigation into Tallaght hospital directs the hospital to stop placing patients awaiting a bed on trolleys in corridors near its emergency department.

An unannounced inspection by Hiqa finds there were 20 patients in corridors or in the emergency department awaiting a bed. Five patients have been waiting more than 24 hours since the decision was taken to admit them.

The inspection also finds one patient with tuberculosis was placed for more than 72 hours in a clinical room which was not an isolation room, and which opened directly onto a corridor where other patients were being cared for.

It also emerges in August that the HSE spent €55 million on hiring taxis in 2010.

September

By September, some 85 overseas junior doctors, brought in to fill vacancies in the public hospital system, are still waiting to sit exams to allow them to register with the Medical Council. About 30 of the doctors failed the exams and are waiting to re-sit them.

October

Health authorities pledge to improve child-protection services after new figures show that up to 35 young people known to social services died in the past 18 months. Most died from natural causes, followed by suicide, accidents and drug overdoses.

Meanwhile, the Minister for Health shelves his predecessor’s plans to phase out payments for student nurses and midwives during their 36-week hospital placement period. Payments will instead be reduced in stages over the coming years.

November

Three women aged 89-93 mount a High Court challenge against the proposed closure of the Abbeyleix Community Nursing Unit where they are residents.

Similar closure announcements are made in respect of community nursing units in Brittas, Portlaoise, Athy and Galway.

And as flu season looms, it emerges that some 480 patients have received too low a dose of the flu vaccine from their pharmacies. A few days later, the HSE confirms that 850 of its own staff have also been given the wrong dosage and will have to be revaccinated.

December

After strong criticism by the Minister for Health, a Scrooge-like move by the HSE to withhold €15 million in expenses from staff until January is abandoned.

Looking ahead to 2012, Dr James Reilly predicts cuts in health service funding could be in the region of €853 million, leading to unavoidable cuts to services too.

As the year ends, there is heated debate at Killarney Community Hospital over a moving statue. After the removal of a large red and white statue of Christ from over the door of the hospital for “health and safety reasons”, local disquiet resulted in the issue coming before An Bord Pleanála, which ruled the HSE didn’t have planning permission to carry out the action.

This month, the HSE paid fees of €4,500 to lodge an appeal with An Bord Pleanála against a decision by Killarney Town Council not to grant planning permission to the HSE for the statue’s removal.

An eventful year for the health service saw (clockwise from top) protests over Roscommon Hospital; transport difficulties for liver transplant patient Meadhbh McGivern, with her parents Joe and Assumpta; a changing of the guard at the Department of Health as James Reilly became Minister for Health and Mary Harney stepped down; and continued controversy over the site for the National Children’s Hospital.