Varadkar focuses on 'solutions' to trolley crisis despite strike fears
Health Minister Leo Varadkar could be facing into a winter of discontent if the overcrowding crisis in emergency departments is not tackled.
He attended a two-hour meeting with emergency department nurses at the headquarters of the Irish Nurses and Midwives' Association yesterday (INMO). The INMO has warned that the threat of industrial action cannot be ruled out.
The purpose of the meeting was to allow Mr Varadkar to hear directly from frontline staff about the impact of overcrowding on patient care.
Speaking afterwards, Karen McGowan (30) who has seven years' experience working as an emergency nurse, told the Herald of the difficulties being caused by overcrowding.
Karen works at a busy Dublin-based emergency department and described what it's like to work there.
"It's full, it's overcrowded, it's difficult and it's particularly difficult for the absolutely amazing staff that I work with, and ultimately it's very, very difficult for the patients who are being housed in the department.
"It's an area that is the height of activity, constantly moving.
"There are ambulances coming and going, people going for CT scans and diagnostics," she said. "It's constantly busy. The trolleys are back to back, side by side," she said.
Nurses are "squeezing" between trolleys trying to do their job like checking temperatures and blood pressure.
As well as people on trolleys, other patients are left on chairs.
If they leave their chair, they have to make sure that they have somebody minding it.
The department in which Karen works has 26 designated trolleys.
The numbers on chairs can depend on the flow of patients through the department.
There can be 10 to 15 patients on chairs, she said.
"It's constantly full," she said about the department.
How long patients are left waiting for a bed can depend. They can wait up to 12 hours, but others can wait between 24 and 48 hours, she said.
Speaking about the meeting with Mr Varadkar, Karen said that she felt it was useful.
"I feel it's a step in the right direction. The Minister needed to hear from the shop floor what is going on in all the emergency departments around Ireland.
"I accept things are not going to be solved overnight, but it's a work in progress. We need to aim high," Karen added.
Meanwhile, INMO Secretary General Liam Doran said that industrial action at the worst-affected hospitals would be a last resort.
He said there was concern going into a winter period.
"All of the indicators are that the overcrowding is getting worse, our staffing levels are very low, our ability to recruit is very limited.
"The management side and Government have not yet got the fact that they need to make their recruitment and retention an absolute priority. They must improve incentives," he said.
It comes as the INMO executive council will meet today to hear feedback from the national meeting.
The union's figures have revealed that 7,630 patients were on trolleys in September this year, which represents a 17pc increase when compared with the same month last year.
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Varadkar said that the focus had to be on solutions. He said he did not believe any industrial action by nurses on overcrowding would be helpful.
In relation to the feedback he received at the meeting, Mr Varadkar said he knew exactly how bad it was.
"I have worked in three emergency departments and I have visited 14 in the last year," he said.
However, he admitted he had heard some "new things" at the meeting yesterday.
Mr Varadkar said he wanted the nurses' support for the implementation of the plan the Government has for emergency departments.
"The most important thing is making it happen," he said.
He added that the commitment is there "if we can staff them" to open an additional 300 beds before the end of the year.