Delays at A&E 'leave ambulances unable to respond to call-outs'

Hundreds of ambulances a month are being held up at hospital A&E departments for up to three hours, unable to respond to potentially life-threatening emergencies.

Among the worst-hit is Letterkenny General Hospital, where 38 ambulances were unable to get back into service for between two and four hours because a trolley could not be found for their patient in the crowded A&E.

The crisis in turnaround times follows an inquest this week into the death of mother-of-eight Margaret Callaghan, who waited for 71 minutes for a 999 ambulance in January last year.

The inquest for Ms Callaghan (71), from Letterkenny, was told that two ambulances were unable to leave the hospital – for up to six and a half hours in one case – because the A&E was so congested.

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It led coroner Dr Denis McCauley to appeal to the HSE to review its protocols for turnaround times around the country.

Figures from the HSE for September showed 766 ambulances at the hospital were delayed for more than the 30-minute target set by the HSE. Other hospitals where ambulances were stranded for hours include Cork University Hospital, Waterford University Hospital, Kerry University Hospital, Mercy Hospital in Cork, and Sligo General Hospital.

A spokeswoman for the HSE said the national ambulance service and emergency department staff “work together to ensure patients are transferred to hospital care as quickly and as safely as possible”.

She said some ambulances have experienced delays in transferring patients to emergency department care.

But it is “important to note that escalation policies are in place between ambulance service and emergency departments to manage any delays in patient transfers, and to ensure that ambulances are available to respond to emergency calls as they arise at all times”.

However, Brendan Flynn, of the National Ambulance Service Representative Association (NASRA), warned the delays were getting worse.

“Paramedics cannot leave until there is a proper handover of the patient,” he said.

It means the patient transported to the hospital must lie on the ambulance trolley until they can be accepted by the A&E.

Patients in life-threatening situations are accepted immediately by the A&E, but the hold-up can happen in other less critical cases.

The September figures show that an ambulance was on hold at the A&E in Cork during September for between seven and 14 hours.

Nationally, 18,504 ambulances spent up to an hour at A&Es.

The delays persisted last month, when a number of ambulances arriving at the Cork University Hospital A&E were held up for over two hours.

Meanwhile, A&E departments remain under increasing strain as new figures show more patients attended for emergency cases last week, compared with the same week in 2018.

Flu is circulating at its highest level this winter and 114 patients with the virus were admitted to hospital last week.

So far, 186 patients have had to be admitted to hospital for flu this winter.

Cases of the norovirus, known as the winter vomiting bug, are also rising, and this is bad news for hospitals, which may have to cordon off beds to prevent its spread.

The advice from the HSE is for people to stay at home if they have a flu-like illness.

The highest hospitalisation rates so far this year are among the under-fives and the over-65s.

No deaths from flu have so far been reported this winter.

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