A “major problem” in Northern Ireland’s accident and emergency units is placing staff under extreme pressure and putting patients at risk, nurses have warned.
This was the stark message given to Northern Ireland health minister Edwin Poots at an emergency care summit last week in Belfast.
Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast
It follows a number of incidents highlighting the strain on Northern Ireland’s emergency services, including a major incident at the Royal Victoria Hospital last month and five deaths there in 2013.
The summit, organised by the Royal College of Nursing’s emergency care network, was attended by 50 frontline nurses, as well as managers and doctors.
Speaking to Nursing Times after the summit, RCN Northern Ireland director Janice Smyth said nurses wanted everybody at “senior level to recognise that we had got a real problem in our system”.
They also wanted them to realise the situation was putting nurses in a position “where they were compromising the care they could give to patients and, in doing so, causing them undue stress and giving real cause for concern about their registration being compromised,” she said.
“There was a reluctance to accept that we had a serious problem”
Ms Smyth said the major incident at the Royal Victoria in early January, where a large backlog of patients led to lengthy waiting times in A&E, was initially put down to a spike in attendance.
“Our information from nurses on the ground was that was not the case,” she said. “We knew pressure had been building from November last year – there was a reluctance to accept that we had a serious problem.”
A&E was “not staffed to treat patients coming through the system, plus look after 40 on trolleys”, she said.
“There was an over-reliance on bank staff,” she added. “Gaps were plugged with nurses from the bank who may not have been in an emergency department before and that actually added an additional burden.”
Ms Smyth also highlighted that the issue went beyond A&E, with reductions in homecare workers and district nurses. “The problem manifests itself in the emergency department but actually it’s a systemic problem.”
“There was an over-reliance on bank staff… that actually added an additional burden”
Mr Poots praised the work of A&E nurses and told the summit that “important work will be taken forward which clearly sets out key professional standards for emergency department nursing”.
He said: “I am deeply thankful for the unending commitment demonstrated by emergency department nurses often in difficult and challenging situations. Nurses hold a unique role as you remain with the patient on their journey through health care.”
“It has been agreed that important work will be taken forward which clearly sets out key professional standards for emergency department nursing,” he added. “This will also include work to develop a career pathway for emergency department nurses.”