CEO of under-fire Limerick hospital hits back at claim overcrowding is “out of control”

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Professor Colette Cowan, UL Hospitals Group CEO

The Chief Executive of the UL Hospitals Group, has hit back at claims by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) that University Hospital Limerick (UHL) is “out of control” with overcrowding and that extra beds had failed to tackle the ongoing trolley crisis at the hospital.

Colette Cowan said the INMO claims were “disappointing” and “incorrect”, because she said 98 single beds opened at UHL last January have not been used to offset “record” attendances at the Limerick emergency department, because they are being used for seriously-ill patients who are at high-risk of dying if they contract COVID-19.

“We were looking forward to having the 98 beds, they were going to really assist our activity, but what I have had to do with those 98 beds is turn them into safe zones for the most sick; 24 of the beds were for hematology-oncology, for our cancer patients, which protected them from Covid; then there’s others for renal patients who are at high-risk of infection.”

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“Other beds are assigned for respiratory pathways for people who are queried-Covid, who are very ill, and who are on non-invasive ventilation at ward level,” Ms Cowan went on.

“All of the beds are fantastic single room facilities, and they are keeping people alive, and they are keeping staff safe, but they are not serving an ED surge,” she explained.

UHL was the second most overcrowded hospital with 50 patients on trolleys today, one less than Cork University Hospital (51), and 13 more than University College Hospital Galway (37).

Ms Cowan said she refuted the INMO’s claim that the hospital was ‘out of control’: “I certainly do, as a management team we are in full control of whats happening and our whole focus is on our staff and our patients. If you are on the outside looking in you might of course think its a busy service and nobody is doing anything, but that is totally incorrect.”

Ms Cowan said she was “disappointed” the INMO sought “ministerial intervention” and a “independent review” of how the hospital had managed patient overcrowding.

She said she felt let down that the union had issued “broad statements, without any discussion with me formally”.

“The facts are clear – We have an older generation living in the mid west and we have seen an incredible surge in (attendances) the last three weeks of people who are aged over 70, 80, 90 years of age, and they are very sick.”

In the 24-hours up to 8am Thursday, 247 people had attended the ED at UHL.

There were 217 people around the country waiting to be admitted to a hospital bed this Friday. The highest numbers (34) were waiting on trolleys at UHL, followed by Cork University Hospital (33), and University College Hospital Galway (27).

Ms Cowan said the present surges in attendances at the Limerick emergency department – the only 24 hour ED serving Limerick City and County, Clare, and North Tipperary, as well as parts of North Cork – was due to older people presenting who have experienced “delayed care because of the pandemic” and are now “acutely ill”.

“They don’t have Covid, but they have cocooned and they have now started to circulate in society, and while they are vaccinated, they are sick with other things and (their) diagnosis has been delayed. They may not have come into hospital because of the fear of Covid, so they are quiet ill when they come in, so they are longer in hospital.”

“The last thing we want to do is to send them home half-recovered, so therefore we have less beds, because they are longer in hospital. We have seen a 33% increase in attendances in the ED which we have based based over two years because you can’t really base anything on last year, so I think it’s really important that people get the facts.”

The Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly indicated yesterday he would not be intervening nor would he seek an independent review of how UHL management was dealing with overcrowding.

“There’s already been a review and what the review said was we need more nurses, more consultants, more beds, more diagnostics, more home-care. A lot of that was put in last winter, when we launched a €600m winter plan, and in spite of Covid, which should have made the trolley crisis much much worse, we didn’t have a trolley crisis last year,” he said.

Minister Donnelly offered that, UHL had received a second MRI machine as well as part of a “significantly increased the home-care budget”.

However, he acknowledged that more staff were required at the hospital, and that only “a small number” of the 34 additional consultants sought for UHL were filled.

Talks with unions into the “Safe Staffing Framework” are continuing, “but we need to recognise that the current staffing levels are not sufficient”, Mr Donnelly said.