Dáil debates

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Emergency Departments

9:42 am

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for her presence today. We all know, both as human beings and constituency politicians, that a trip made by anybody to hospital is generally a journey taken with some little anxiety and trepidation, if not more. It is not something we like to have to schedule into our diary. Covid-19 has clearly exacerbated this experience for people because it tends to make the hospital environment even more fraught. That is notwithstanding the incredible efforts of nurses and doctors in accident and emergency departments and all the other front-line healthcare workers who have kept the hospital system going throughout this period. I know the public greatly appreciates that. Long waiting times can discommode staff and cause them as much anxiety as they cause for the people waiting in the rooms.

Tallaght University Hospital in my constituency serves a huge catchment area, as the Minister of State is aware, from north Wicklow to north Kildare and then into my constituency to Rathfarnham, Knocklyon, Templeogue and Citywest, taking in Tallaght, Firhouse and Ballycullen. It is a massive area. Recently I have heard from a number of constituents who specifically mentioned the accident and emergency department in Tallaght.

I do not want to criticise the hospital but could we get an explanation for what has been happening in the past month or two? We are not technically into winter yet but we are coming towards the end of autumn.

Are these circumstances being reported to the Minister? What steps are being taken? What is the understanding of the Minister, the HSE and Tallaght University Hospital as to why waiting times have increased in the emergency department? What steps can and will be taken to mitigate those long waiting times and to ensure, particularly in the context of the Covid pandemic, that patients enduring those waiting times are made as comfortable as possible?

9:52 am

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to address the House on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. As Deputy Lahart has outlined so well, of course someone presenting to an emergency department is anxious and upset. The presence of Covid has made it more fraught. I acknowledge the distress that overcrowded emergency departments cause to patients, their families and front-line staff working in very challenging conditions in hospitals throughout the country. I acknowledge the work and commitment of staff in ensuring the uninterrupted provision of emergency care throughout the pandemic.

The HSE reports that emergency department attendances have now reached 2019 levels, exceeding such levels at some sites. The numbers of patients waiting on trolleys have been increasing steadily since June 2021, although trolley counts for October to date remain 28% lower than the 2019 levels.

Tallaght University Hospital is one of Ireland's largest acute teaching hospitals and the emergency department is one of the busiest in the country with 35,000 attendances to the end of August this year, an increase of 8.6% compared with the same period last year. Emergency department admissions were 9,900, up by 7.1% compared with the same period in 2020 and up by 7.6% compared with 2019. Sustained high volumes of attendances, including many frail elderly patients with complex medical conditions, have continued over several weeks now. The hospital is actively managing the situation by having early ward rounds and identifying patients for expedited discharge.

While attendance and admission numbers have now returned to pre-pandemic levels, the continued requirement to provide separate Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 pathways presents an additional challenge to patient flow in all hospitals, including Tallaght.

The winter plan for 2020-21 and budget 2021 provided for an additional 1,146 permanent hospital beds, of which 56 are in Tallaght. I am pleased to say that 50 of these new beds have been opened, with the remaining six acute beds to open in the near future. The 50 beds comprise 26 beds opened since January 2021 in the new day-care unit at Tallaght Cross West, a further 18 beds also opened since January in Tallaght Cross and most recently, six trauma beds opened in September. These new beds provide improved patient experience in terms of comfort and dignity. They improve infection prevention and control capabilities and will improve patient flow at the hospital.

In recent years, the hospital has been pursuing an ambitious capital development programme. Last year saw the culmination of three major projects, namely, the Reeves day surgery centre, the Vartry renal unit and the community radiology centre. Despite the challenges that 2020 presented, all units scheduled to open during the year opened on time and on budget, which is great testament to Tallaght hospital.

Construction work has been under way since October 2020 to deliver the expansion and upgrade of the intensive care unit at Tallaght. When both phases are completed, an additional 12 single ICU rooms will be available. Both phases are expected to be completed in quarter 2 of 2022.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and I had a sneak preview of the children's satellite hospital at Tallaght. It is a very fine facility and I very much look forward to it opening. I acknowledge, as the Minister of State did, the work and commitment of staff in Tallaght University Hospital and their efforts in ensuring an uninterrupted provision of emergency care throughout the pandemic.

As the Minister of State noted, Tallaght University Hospital is one of Ireland's largest acute teaching hospitals with 35,000 attendances to the end of August this year, which is incredible. As confirmed by the Minister of State's answer, not only have attendances in the emergency department reached pre-pandemic levels, they have increased by 7.5% compared with 2019, prior to the pandemic. All the other figures the Minister of State highlighted show increases in attendance numbers, reflecting the increase in population and the ageing population in the surrounding area. Over the years, people like Professor Rónán Collins have pointed out that this is not unexpected.

I welcome the 56 new beds and that 50 of them are open. The Minister of State has outlined where they are located across the Tallaght University Hospital campus, which has a substantial footprint in Tallaght. The HSE and the Department need to know that notwithstanding those additional beds, figures are rising. These additional facilities were provided to cope with pre-Covid levels. We now expect some kind of mild surge of people returning to hospital, particularly those who had put it off during the pandemic. I ask the Minister of State to outline to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, the concern of the local community over the capacity at Tallaght. The HSE needs to constantly review increasing capacity, if necessary.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I will bring the Deputy's concern back to the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly. I am delighted to hear that they both visited the hospital recently and have seen the progress. Attendances at all emergency department are hospitals have increased throughout the country. It is a very worrying trend so early in the winter. We are facing into the possibility of the winter flu and the vomiting bug. Luckily last year people did not present with those two conditions but already we are seeing the trends. Coupled with that, we are all conscious that more than 400 people presenting with Covid are in hospitals, including more than 70 in ICU. That also needs to be thrown into the mix and it has been very difficult. I join the Deputy and everybody the House in saluting front-line workers, dealing with this at the coalface.

To date under the winter plan, approximately 800 additional acute beds have been provided nationally on a permanent basis over the number available at the end of 2019. A total of 73 permanent sub-acute beds have been provided. As the Deputy will be aware because he has raised it with me many times, we have allocated considerable funding to home support to try to support elderly people to live at home, to age well and to try to avoid attendances at emergency departments. Notwithstanding that, we have seen a spike in the number of people who are presenting in hospital.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. I know how important it is to him and to the people of Tallaght. I can assure him that the Department of Health and the HSE will continue to work with local hospital management to further improve patient experience in Tallaght.