Scandal of empty beds as waiting list crisis grows
Hospital beds and theatres are lying idle as patients languish on soaring public waiting lists, the Herald has learned.
There are now 11,533 patients across the country needing some form of orthopaedic surgery, many of them in pain and desperate for a hip or knee replacement.
However, Cappagh Hospital in Dublin, the national orthopaedic centre, is only able to run three of its six theatres every week.
It has empty wards despite having its own waiting list of nearly 3,000 patients - some of whom have been in the queue for more than 15 months.
The 159-bed hospital, which treats patients from around the country, receives around €33m in annual funding.
However, deputy chief executive Angela Lee said it could open theatres and carry out surgery on many more public patients if its core allocation received a modest increase, allowing it to plan ahead.
"Currently the hospital is only funded to operate 3.5 theatres," Ms Lee said.
Orthopaedic surgeon Paddy Kenny said: "I see people in my clinic every day who are in agony day and night.
"They cannot sleep and cannot carry out normal daily activities.
"There are six operating theatres in Cappagh Hospital but only three of them work on a given day.
"We have 27 surgeons and enough anaesthetists and beds to run six theatres, five days a week.
"If we had just an extra €2m, we could have four of the six operating theatres working every day. Another €5m would allow us to have five theatres operating and with €7.5m we could open all six theatres."
If five theatres were opened, the doctors could do the equivalent of 20 joint replacements a day - 100 a week.
"In 10 weeks, that would amount to 1,000 joint replacements," Mr Kenny said.
"If we did 100 joints a week we could bring the waiting list in Cappagh down to six months and take on work from other hospitals in Tullamore and Letterkenny."
He added the frustration among surgeons is "palpable".
The hospital also carries out a range of other orthopaedic surgeries, including spinal and upper limb operations.
"I have a long waiting list so I get a full theatre day every week. But other surgeons are limited to one every four weeks," Mr Kenny said.
"It is terribly frustrating for surgeons, patients and the hospital. It could be a fantastic place."
Waiting lists across all specialities are currently rising again because the ED crisis is forcing hospitals to put most planned surgery on hold. Cappagh has no Emergency Department.
A spokesman for the Ireland East Hospital Group (IEGH), which includes Cappagh Hospital, said its funding allocation for 2018 has not been finalised.
The group is trying to increase the surgical activity in Cappagh and is working with the National Treatment Purchase Fund, which is being given €55m to purchase extra treatments in various hospitals to bring down waiting lists.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Simon Harris will today provide cabinet colleagues with the long-awaited bed capacity review.
The review is understood to recommend the Government invests in around 2,500 extra hospital beds by 2031.
Sources said the minister will argue that this number should be "frontloaded" in order to prevent a repeat of the massive overcrowding that has taken place this winter.
While ministers will be briefed on the report, Mr Harris will ultimately need the sign-off from Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe before beginning the roll-out of new beds.
Funding for extra capacity will form part of the Government's Capital Plan, which will be launched in the coming weeks.
As well as setting out the requirement for more hospital beds, the capacity review also considers key requirements in the areas of primary care and long-term care.
The review takes account of current levels of demand and capacity, demographic and non-demographic factors that will drive future demand.
It also looks at the potential impact that key system reforms can have on capacity needs.
If these reforms are implemented, it recommends that by 2031 we will need around 2,500 extra hospital beds - including inpatient, day case and critical care.
An extra hospital bed can cost around €1m.