Access to healthcare ‘depends on how much money you have’ says Health Minister on Limerick visit

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly at the opening of the Croom Orthopaedic Hospital. Photo: Brian Arthur.

DESPITE persistent hospital overcrowding, a new €15million theatre suite and ward complex opened today (Friday June 30) at Croom Orthopaedic Hospital in County Limerick is hoped to “significantly reducing wait lists for outpatients and for surgery” in the Mid West region.

That’s according to Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, who visited a number of hospital and healthcare campuses throughout the Mid West earlier today.

The Minister said that despite serious challenges in the health service “now, probably for first time, we are in touching distance of universal healthcare – a core value of our Republic”.

But Mr Donnelly warned: “We are not there yet, access to care (still) depends on how much money you have, how much money a child’s parents have, and that’s not a Republic we aspire to be.”

Hospital theatres and diagnostics services, he says, must be required to operate “seven days a week” and senior decision makers must be physically present on the ground in hospitals at weekends. The Minister acknowledged that in University Hospital Limerick (UHL) this has not always been the case.

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“We are now seeing results, is the problem solved? Not even close, but there is really important progress.”

The Minister launched new developments at Croom Orthopaedic Hospital, including an ambulatory trauma service, whereby trauma patients from the severely over-crowded UHL are transferred to Croom for surgery and recovery, which Minister Donnelly said was helping to “free up capacity” in the Dooradoyle hospital.

78 patients were left waiting on trolleys for valuable bedspace at UHL today, including 30 patients on trolleys in the Emergency Department and 48 on trolleys on wards – the most overcrowded hospital in the country for the last 31 weekdays in a row, according to figures from the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.

A recent flash inspection conducted by HIQA (Health Information and Quality Authority) of the Emergency Department at UHL found it was in breach of national standards of patient privacy and dignity.

Minister Donnelly said, despite this, he was “seeing results” after an investment of 100 beds, as well as a 96-bed block currently under construction, and a second 96-bed block approved on the grounds of UHL.

Despite pressures on the Limerick ED, he says, outpatient waiting lists at UHL have been reduced “from years to months” due to advances at Croom.

“Over the last year, the UHL outpatient waiting list has fallen by a third – that’s very, very impressive – that means there are 14,000 less men, women, and children waiting today than there were one year ago for outpatients, it’s fantastic to see, and the ‘scopes list’ has fallen by about 30 per cent,” said the Minister.

The developments, including 24 single en-suite patient rooms, has placed Croom Hospital ahead of the National Waiting List Action Plan 2023 target of 90 per cent of all patients waiting less than nine months for an inpatient or day case procedure.

Croom is also “on track to achieve the national targets for outpatient waiting lists set out in this year’s national plan,” said a representative UL Hospitals Group (ULHG).

Data from the National Treatment Purchase Fund shows that, in the three years to the end of 2022, Croom’s orthopaedic outpatient waiting list reduced by 34 per cent, and rheumatology outpatients reduced by 68 per cent, despite a significant growth in outpatient referrals, with have increased by about 200 per month in orthopaedics alone.

During its first 18 months, a newly opened Pain Management Centre at Croom is treating more patients than ever before and has “reduced overall wait times between referral and review from 49 months to 60 weeks, and intervention wait lists from 60 weeks to 12 weeks”.

As of June 2023, the inpatient and day case waiting list for pain management at Croom stands at 35, which ULHG offered “is a dramatic 394 per cent reduction on the 173 cases recorded this time last year, with no patient waiting longer than six months and just one case waiting longer than three months”.

There has also been a major staff increase at Croom, “with 80 per cent growth between December 2020 and April 2023 (from 173 to 312 WTE) across all staff categories”.

Minister Donnelly remarked: “I broke my back when I was 23 and I could have done with access to a pain clinic. What is amazing here is the fall in waiting lists, it’s wonderful to see.”