Tuesday, 15 November 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Ba mhaith liom fáilte is fiche a chuir roimh rang a cúig don Gaelscoil Mainistir Fhear Maí. You are very welcome here. Tá súil agam go mbainfidh sibh taitneamh as an turas go dtí Teach Laighean. I hope you enjoy your time here with us. Maybe you might learn something and maybe you might be able to teach us something as well.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, to the House. She is a fellow Galwegian who is often in the House and does great work for us. The issue I want to raise is the two new orthopaedic operating theatres in Merlin Park Hospital in Galway, which the Minister of State will be aware cost €10.5 million. They opened last June and were due to be fully operational shortly thereafter. It is now five years since surgical appointments had to be cancelled when a leaky roof at Merlin Park led to the closure of the old facilities there. In that time span, naturally, a considerable back log has built up. Unfortunately, there are now long waiting lists. It was expected that the new operating theatres in Galway would have a significant impact on reducing waiting times for orthopaedic surgery in the west. Unfortunately, five months after these theatres opened, they remain non-operational.
As the Minister of State will be aware, I have been contacted by constituents and by patients who have been waiting years for operations. Despite these theatres having opened, they do not seem to be any closer than they were prior to this multi-million euro investment in facilities. There are very harrowing stories. One woman needed a hip replacement over five years ago. She had an MRI scan carried out over three years ago and met with a specialist 18 months ago. She met with the surgeon due to do the operation in the first quarter of this year. The situation is so bad that she has to sleep in a recliner downstairs in her house and she has gone from having an active life with various activities to being someone who rarely gets out of the house.I spoke to her again last week. She is struggling to go to mass and that is unacceptable. The reality is that she has no timeframe and as the Minister of State will be aware, the uncertainty is difficult. That is just one example among thousands of people in Galway West, Galway East and across the west of Ireland. The reality is that the longer this situation drags on, the more people are being added to the waiting list and the bigger the backlog is becoming. We must address this with urgency. These theatres must become fully operational. This is something that will make an enormous difference to the quality of life of people in Galway city and beyond, as the Minister of State is aware. Whatever measures are required to be implemented to resolve this need to be taken immediately.
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and I will adhere to the script that has been provided to me. Before I do so, it is important for me to say as a fellow Galwegian that it is five years since the roof started to leak in Merlin Park University Hospital. It is five years since they went out of operation, since they were not fit for purpose and since we had all these meetings. A lot of good work has been done since then. It is fantastic to see that two theatres have been completed, and to see the energy and drive that went into the projects in recent times to bring them to the stage they are at. I will read the Minister's script but I will then finish with my own abiding words.
I thank Senator Crowe for raising the matter of the two new orthopaedic theatres in Merlin Park University Hospital Galway. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on this important service. As part of the Saolta University Health Care Group, Merlin Park University Hospital is a level 2 hospital delivering non-complex elective medical surgical services including orthopaedic and minor surgeries and renal services. It has two designated rehabilitation units along with a number of specialist outpatient clinics. As the Senator will be aware, work on the two orthopaedic surgical wards to serve Merlin Park hospital was completed in 2022. The purpose of these theatres is to increase elective surgical capacity at the site. Construction was completed earlier this year and commissioning was finalised on 10 June 2022. Currently one of the theatres is fully operational. Staff were originally put in place to allow for the provision of 16 theatre sessions per week, but currently ten theatre sessions are provided per week. These sessions are provided in one theatre running five days a week.
From 7 November 2022, theatre sessions were planned to increase to 12 per week. However, staff vacancies mean that ten theatre sessions are provided per week at present. Management at the hospital, in conjunction with the Saolta University Health Care Group, has approval for additional positions and is currently recruiting staff for these posts. For reasons of patient safety, which we can all agree is of paramount importance, it is not possible to open a second theatre until adequate staffing levels are in place. Currently the hospital requires an additional anaesthetist to allow the number of sessions to increase. International recruitment for nursing is also being progressed in order to increase staff resources and facilitate the operation of the second theatre. Management in Merlin Park hospital currently plans for the number of sessions to return to 16 a week from 9 January 2023. I do not know how they can do that. They will not have the staff.
Recruitment of key staff for health posts remains challenging. However, as a result of the commitment to sufficiently staff the health service in the long term, 2020-21 saw record numbers of recruitment into the workforce. In 2020 we saw the largest increase in the health sector workforce since the foundation of the HSE and in 2021 we saw the second largest increase.
There is no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic had an impact on waiting lists and to be honest it is great to see the theatres now commissioned. We need to ask the HSE and the Saolta University Health Care Group to prioritise the recruitment of the anaesthetist and the staff to ensure elective surgeries can take place. The Senator outlined the need clearly when he spoke about the woman who is waiting for five years.I have a book full of women who are waiting five years for services. It is incumbent on the HSE to prioritise. One way of driving down waiting lists is to recruit into the elective space. That is why we talk about needing an elective hospital. Surely how we clearly demonstrate we can deliver an elective hospital is to recruit enough staff to work in two theatres.
I thank the Senator.
I sincerely thank the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, for her response. What I like about her is that she gave her own response. Outside the written script, she calls it as she sees it. That is what the House heard.
It is incomprehensible that on 9 January 2023 we will increase services by 60%. That will not happen. It is frustrating - I hear that in the Minister of State's voice as well - that we receive bland answers in this House. If I could explain in my own language to the people in Galway city, who elected me as a councillor for 11 years and gave me the opportunity and help to serve in this House, what the process is, what is causing the delay and how I cannot help this woman who is almost 80 years of age, it would make it much easier for me and perhaps the woman would understand it. However, being told that we will increase theatre sessions by 60% when we know it will not happen is fundamentally flawed. I hear the Minister of State's frustration. She is familiar with the situation in east Galway and concurs with my concerns.
I thank the Minister of State for her frankness and openness. It is a priority for this Government. It must happen. I am confident the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will raise the matter at the appropriate level of Government.
I thank Senator Crowe for giving me the opportunity to articulate to the people of Galway that this is a priority for the Government. The Government brought the theatres to the point of being commissioned. They have been approved by HIQA and so on at this stage. This is not news. We knew that two theatres would come on board. I wonder why our recruitment process did not start sooner and why we did not have the staff in place. We all knew we would need an anaesthetist. Having said that, the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, has provided the required funding to staff the two theatres. It is incumbent now on the HSE and the Saolta group to prioritise the recruitment of the staff. Whether in Ireland or abroad, they must prioritise it because we can no longer continue to explain to the people of Galway and the surrounding areas that we have two theatres but they cannot be looked after in the west.