Dáil debates

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

8:00 pm

Photo of Gerald NashGerald Nash (Louth, Labour)
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I am disappointed the Minister for Health is not available to respond to this matter. I am also that none of the Ministers of State at the Department of Health appear to be available either. Notwithstanding that, I am sure that the Minister who is here this evening to respond will do so to the best of his ability. I want to put on the record the fact that it is unacceptable to me that Ministers from the Department of Health are not here to address this important issue.

If any one of us here this evening thinks that the health service is working, I would challenge all of us to think again. The public health service is not working if it allows a man fighting for his life on a busy street to wait 30 minutes for an ambulance. That man was Peter Sherlock and he died in hospital soon after being taken there in the back of a van by a good Samaritan who was passing by at the time and saw the man in distress. He was taken to hospital in the back of a van because there was no ambulance available to take him. We are not referring here to a street in a small provincial town 50 miles from the nearest acute hospital. We are referring to a tragic incident which occurred on the streets of Drogheda, the largest town in Ireland, less than one mile from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital and only a matter of a couple of hundred metres from an ambulance base.

We have been told over the past few days in a series of HSE statements that all vehicles stationed in Drogheda at the time the call was received, at 9.59 hours on the 26 May, were what was termed "tasked on calls" at the time. We are told that the closest available ambulance was dispatched to the scene. Why is it then that the closest available ambulance was located at Navan, 30 minutes from the town of Drogheda, the health care centre of the entire north-eastern region?

We are told that the three ambulances that were at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital were all actively engaged with patients. We are also informed, thanks only to the tenacity of the team on The Michael Reade Show on LMFM, that other ambulances were involved in patient transportation at the time the call was received.

In a statement last week the HSE state, "Ambulance Service resources are deployed on a clinical basis to ensure that the appropriate patient gets the appropriate response". I wonder if the Ministers present agree that the Peter Sherlock get the appropriate response because I do not.

This tragic saga has led to a real fear in terms of the ability of the ambulance service to respond to emergencies in Ireland's largest town. The House will agree it is imperative that the public must have confidence in the ambulance service and in the health service in general, and this tragic episode has challenged that confidence. The internationally accepted emergency response time is eight minutes, whereas it takes approximately 30 minutes for an ambulance to travel from Navan to Drogheda.

The circumstances around Mr. Sherlock's death have sent shock-waves around the wider community in Drogheda and the Louth-Meath area in general. One person too many has died waiting for an ambulance in Drogheda. I ask the Minister of State present representing the Minister for Health if he can state with confidence to the people of Drogheda that this will not happen again. Does he have confidence that the HSE ambulance service has the necessary resources at its disposal to do the job the public ask of it?

I implore the Minister to take definitive action to address the failures exposed in this case, to take a different course, dispense with the impenetrable HSE-speak and confront this as the human tragedy it was. I want the Government to be able to look me and the people of Drogheda and County Louth in the eye and tell us that this will not be allowed to happen again in Drogheda or, indeed, for that matter, anywhere else in this country.

Photo of Dinny McGinleyDinny McGinley (Donegal South West, Fine Gael)
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On behalf of the Minister, I thank Deputy Nash for raising this tragic occurrence. The Minister, Deputy Reilly, and I offer our sincere condolences to the relatives of the person who has died.

From what the Minister has been informed, he understands that the man concerned had collapsed in the street and passers by came to his help and called for an ambulance. It appears that it was subsequently decided at the scene, because of the man's condition, to take him direct to hospital by car and the ambulance was cancelled. The HSE's log of calls to the National Ambulance Service bears out this version of events as the ambulance was cancelled nine minutes after the first 999 call had been received.

The Minister commends the instincts that prompted people on the street to help a fellow human being in a dire situation. No one can predict the outcome when faced with such a dilemma. The emergency services can provide advice and support over the phone while an ambulance is awaited but the confusion on the ground may have made this difficult in this case.

This case underlines the need for the reform and modernisation of the ambulance service currently underway. While it does not appear to have been an issue in this case, the move to two national call centres to prioritise and manage calls is clearly essential. It is critical that emergency ambulances are used for emergency services and that there is a rapid hand-over of patients at emergency departments.

Supported by the Department of Health and by HIQA, the National Ambulance Service is working to improve the management and integration of its services. This includes a reduction to two ambulance control centres nationally, with appropriate technology, a clinical lead for pre-hospital care, development and implementation of new performance indicators for pre-hospital care and development of standard national criteria on non-emergency patient transport.

The HIQA report "Pre-Hospital Emergency Care: Key Performance Indicators for Emergency Response Times", published in January 2011, recommends response times for first responders and for ambulances. The HIQA response time standard for transporting ambulances is 18 minutes 59 seconds for life threatening emergencies in 75% of cases. The HSE has been recording this data since January 2011 and since March 2011 has advised that it meets this standard throughout Ireland.

The National Ambulance Service has undergone significant change in order to ensure quality, safety and value for money. In line with other clinical areas, this process is ongoing as clinical needs and standards develop. I and the Minister, Deputy Reilly, believe that these developments are in the best interests of patients and that they are a key part of the Government's work to ensure high-quality emergency care.

In conclusion let me once again offer my condolences and those of the Minister to the relatives in this case.