The Government’s plans to provide an additional 2,600 hospitals will be insufficient to meet increasing demands, doctors have warned.
The Irish Hospital Consultants' Association (IHCA) told the Oireachtas health committee on Wednesday the commitment in the Government's new national development plan to provide €10.9billion in capital funding for the health services in the next decade represented " an important first step" in addressing the overwhelming deficit in acute hospital beds.
It said an expansion of acute public hospital capacity was long overdue as the country’s acute hospital and mental health services were at breaking point, with unacceptable delays being endured by patients in obtaining emergency and scheduled care.
However, the IHCA said the deficit in acute public hospital beds “will not be remedied in full by the proposed expansion of 2,600”.
The IHCA saidthe ESRI had forecast a 37 per cent increase in patient demand for hospital services by 2030. It said this projection confirmed “that a greater increase in hospital bed capacity than currently proposed will be required in future.
“However, it is now vitally important that annual commissioning plans are agreed to put the additional 2,600 acute beds in place much earlier than the ten-year period proposed in the national development plan.
“This is of paramount importance so that our hospitals can deliver safe high quality hospital care to patients without the unacceptable current reliance on trolleys and increasing waiting lists,” the IHCA said.
The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) told the committee the HSE's full capacity protocol, which was designed to act as a safety valve when emergency department functioning was compromised, had "now become the norm".
The IMO said this protocol had been implemented on hundreds of occasions in major hospitals last year.
The IMO said public hospitals had 1,531 fewer inpatient beds compared to 2007.
“An immediate assessment of the number of acute beds available is required with the financial and manpower resources made available to upgrade and reinstate beds.”
In an opening statement the IMO said: “A significant contributor to long waiting lists is inadequate medical staffing levels. Our public health services are facing an unprecedented crisis in recruitment and retention in the medical profession.
"This is clearly evidenced by the facts that: We have at any given time over 450 vacant consultant posts. Almost 90 per cent of consultants who trained in Ireland but are currently working abroad have indicated they will not return to Ireland due to the discrimination on pay scales," the IMO statement said.
“One third of existing consultants are considering taking up a post abroad in the foreseeable future.The Public Appointments Service (PAS) produced figures in 2017 which confirm that we are unable as a public health service to attract applicants – 1 in 10 consultant posts received no applications and the PAS could not identify a suitable applicant for 22 of the 84 posts.
The statement added: “Almost 700 GPs are due to retire in the next few years while at the same time 30 percent of GP Trainees are intending to emigrate and 70 per cent of recent graduates from the GP training scheme have indicated they will emigrate with almost 20 per cent having already emigrated.
“GPs who have been established for a number of years are now choosing to leave Ireland.”
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) told the committee that various health reforms introducedover recent years had led to an over-reliance on the acute hospital system that was now not able to cope with the demand.
The INMO said overcrowded conditions in hospitals could be devastating for patients who suffered from a lack of dignity, lack of privacy and reduced standards of care as staff struggled to cope with their workload and working environment.
“Additionally there is now increased evidence of nursing and other staff being subject to verbal and physical assaults which is a manifestation of the conditions of work.”
The INMO said there was no doubt staff were dealing with unacceptable levels of stress and burnout. It said immediate intervention and attention by the Oireachtas was needed to “ensure the system does not become inoperable”.
The union said if pay was not improved for nurses, the health service would be unable to maintain existing bed capacity “never mind the increased capacity required for a growing and ageing population”.