The number of people on trolleys and wards awaiting a bed in an Irish hospital has risen again to a new high of 677.
This represents an increase of more than 20 on the record figure of 656 counted by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation’s (INMO) on Tuesday as part of its “Trolley Watch”, which monitors overcrowding in hospital emergency departments on a daily basis.
The union said some hospitals across the State were simply unable to cope with the surge of patients seeking admission to a hospital bed.
The highest numbers recorded in individual hospitals were at St Luke’s in Kilkenny (54) and University Hospital Limerick (53).
The INMO said that Dublin hospitals, particularly St James’s (28) and Tallaght (23) had recorded big increases overnight in the number of patients waiting for admission to a bed. It said hospitals in the Midlands were very overcrowded, particularly the Midland Regional Hospitals in Mullingar (38) and Tullamore (42).
The HSE had on Tuesday warned that the situation of people waiting on wards and in emergency departments for beds could get worse before it gets better.
HSE national director Damien McCallion said much of the problem has been caused by the spread of flu over the winter and that flu season is still “three or four weeks” from peaking.
Mr McCallion said “we’ll have to wait and see” if the flu causes overcrowding to get worse.
“We’re trying to encourage people to get their vaccine, particularly older people. It may, at a minimum, prevent the flu but also help avoid hospitalisation if someone does get the flu.”
Mr McCallion said the high figures were anticipated, he said, and the HSE has implemented measures to lessen the time people spend on trolleys.
All non-urgent elective surgeries have been cancelled and homecare is being increased to allow patients leave hospital early. Opening hours for diagnostic services and assessment units have been extended in an attempt to relieve pressure.
INMO general secretary Phil Ni Sheaghdha said the figures were “unacceptably high” and that the union was “very concerned at the level of planning to avoid the situation”.
“It is clear that a national emergency is now in place and certain locations simply cannot cope,” she said. “It is intolerable for both patients and staff endeavouring to provide the best care possible to them.”
The INMO said it had sought an emergency meeting of the Emergency Department Taskforce and was awaiting confirmation from the HSE that this would take place either on Wednesday or Thursday.
“In the meantime, the INMO is receiving a number of distressed calls from members who describe intolerable working conditions and inhumane conditions for patients,” Ms Ní Sheaghda said.
Tuesday was the fourth time the number in the INMO count has exceeded 600, with the previous record of 612 counted this time last year.
The beginning of January typically sees the highest trolley numbers of the year following the Christmas break and as a result of the spread of flu.
Dr Jim Grey, an accident and emergency consultant, said hospitals were now in a year round state of crisis with predictable seasonal surges on top of that.
"The first Tuesday of every year sets a new record. This is the worst it has ever been," he told RTÉ's News at One.
He said the main issue was a lack of bed capacity across the hospital system.
“We know there are solutions. We need beds…1,600 were lost on the last decade. The rate in Ireland is 2.8 per 1,000 while 4.8 per 1,000 is the OECD rate,” he added. “We don’t need a bed review to tell us what we already know. We need beds to be opened and we need staff.”
Dr Grey said measures were needed to encourage staff to stay in the health service and that at present there was very poor morale among nurses and doctors in Ireland who were choosing to leave to work in countries with better working conditions.
“It’s going to be a job to get them to come back.”
He added that cancelling scheduled surgeries in the face of overcrowding was only “kicking the can down the road” as people would get sicker and a number of them will end up in Emergency Departments.
“It’s a false economy. The health service needs capital investment.”