The Irish Hospital Consultants Association (IHCA) has defended the four pathologists who highlighted concerns about the mortuary facilities at University Hospital Waterford.
It follows the issuing of a statement by earlier this week by South and Southwest Hospital Group (SSWHG) saying it had "no evidence" to substantiate claims about the condition of the hospital mortuary, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's subsequent description of the claims as "a strange story" during a visit to Waterford on Tuesday.
IHCA president Dr Donal O’Hanlon said the four consultants have the full support of the organisation and that the group was “alarmed at the response” from the Government.
An IHCA statement added that consultants had “an ethical and professional responsibility to highlight concerns” at the hospital.
“The consultant pathologists in Waterford have repeatedly highlighted their genuine concerns about the Waterford University Hospital mortuary facilities to management over a lengthy period,” it said.
“The response by Government to question the validity of these concerns rather than tackling the issue in a much more timely manner is disappointing.”
In a letter, released under the Freedom of Information Act and first reported on last week, the four consultants criticised the poor condition of the mortuary facilities , saying dead bodies had been left lying on trolleys at the hospital, leaking bodily fluids onto corridors and making closed-coffin funerals unavoidable in some cases.
Mr Varadkar had told reporters in Waterford on Tuesday that while he didn’t know if the consultants’ claims were “true or not . . . it doesn’t seem that there’s any evidence to support them and certainly those who made them haven’t put forward any evidence to support them”.
Speaking on Wednesday at Cork City Hall following a cabinet meeting, he said he didn’t mean that the pathologists were lying in their letter to the SSWHG.
The Taoiseach continued: “What I said is a statement of fact, that there is a dispute about what the true facts are. The claim in the letter is that most deceased people were on trolleys and decomposing; that’s what was claimed.
“The picture may be more different to that and the hospital group said there isn’t any evidence to support that claim.”
He said “I don’t know whether it’s true, untrue or exaggerated but the only way we can get to the bottom of it is further investigation and I know that’s being considered by the Joint Oireachtas committee or by Hiqa . . . Just writing something in a letter or saying something isn’t of itself proof or evidence.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald criticised the Taoiseach’s intervention, saying “I would be absolutely astonished if professionals, if pathologists, were prepared to put their name to a series of complaints that had no basis in fact.”
She has called for a full investigation into the claims surrounding the mortuary and post-mortem services at UHW.
Dr Donal O’Hanlon said a “culture change” was needed, which would encourage consultants “to disclose their concerns about health service delivery risks. Otherwise the quality and safety of patient care is at risk and the fundamental consultant role as patient advocate will be undermined. Patient safety and quality of care must be central for staff and management alike”.
Meanwhile, Waterford Green Party senator Grace O’Sullivan has criticised comments from UHW general manager Grace Rothwell on local radio station WLR, in which said she would ensure that hospital staff realise they have a responsibility to keep a record of incidents at the hospital.
“There is an onus on them,” Ms Rothwell said of hospital staff, “they have a duty as an employee to actually complete a form and bring that to the attention of the risk manager in the hospital.”
Ms O’Sullivan said “I really feel that by making those comments, the consultants and the staff have been left to hang out to dry by their employer.”