The cracks in the Irish hospital system tend to manifest themselves during the winter flu season and over bank holiday weekends.
The recent May bank holiday saw reports of over-crowed emergency departments across the country with 704 patients waiting on trolleys at one stage, according to the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.
The HSE was understandably anxious to avoid a repetition this holiday weekend and took the unusual step of asking to staff to “seriously consider” volunteering to work and also to provide additional cover over the extended period if asked.
A precedent was set for such requests last January during the annual flu wave when the number of patients awaiting admission to hospital hit a record of 931. Staff were asked then to work over the weekend to speed up the discharge and admissions process. The voluntary effort worked and the backlog quickly cleared. The response to this weekend’s call from the HSE was “varied”, according to to its chief executive, Bernard Gloster.
It is already clear that simply relying on the goodwill of staff to deal with a predictable problem on an ad-hoc basis is not a long-term solution. Gloster seems alive to this reality and plans to put a formal proposal to the organisations representing healthcare staff for more seven-day working.
The Irish Medical Organisation – which represents hospital doctors – did not even wait to read Gloster’s formal proposals before dismissing them. Despite apparent success in combating overcrowding over the past few months, the IMO believes seven-day working will make no meaningful difference. It says the root of the problem is bed capacity and doctor numbers.
Self-serving arguments from representative bodies are part and parcel of the politics of health care reform. Gloster clearly has a fight on his hands.
But he does have one inescapable fact in his back pocket. And it is one that is evidenced every bank holiday. People get sick and need hospitals all day, every day.