THE huge increase in Covid, flu and respiratory illnesses has given rise to a perfect storm in which hospitals, the ambulance service, emergency departments and West Cork’s GP clinics are under severe pressure.
Due to the spike in Covid and flu infections visiting at Bantry General Hospital has been suspended, while GP clinics in Bantry, Castletownbere and Skibbereen are considered to be the most severely challenged in meeting out-of-hour demands.
Temporary measures that extend GP opening times in the evenings, as well as Saturday mornings, have been put in place, but there are too few doctors in West Cork to meet the rota requirements, and they say the pressure they are under is ‘immense.’
Dr Paul O’Sullivan of the Marino Medical Centre in Bantry confirmed that Covid, flu and respiratory illnesses account for the majority of their cases. He said the normal surgery hours, and the extensions, are operating ‘at capacity and everybody who needs to be seen is being seen.’ But he said a lot of GPs might not have the capacity, or the staff, to extend their services.
Dr O’Sullivan also expressed concern about the number of patients with flu-like symptoms who are presenting at clinics without facemasks.
A spokesperson for the HSE said it has identified ‘priority areas that require additional GP support’ and is collaborating with the Irish College of General Practitioners to deliver the non-EU Rural GP Programme as a solution to the recruitment of GPs.
Dr Mairead Wilson of Rosscarbery Medical Centre confirmed that the warning signs were there in mid-November when the HSE confirmed that the number of attendances at emergency departments had exceeded 1.1m – a figure that represented a 74% increase in admissions.
At that time, and over the Christmas period, National Ambulance Service crews also experienced long delays in admitting patients on ambulance trolleys because of overcrowding at emergency departments, and too few hospital beds. According to figures recorded by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, the number of patients on hospital trollies in Bantry – as of January 3rd – was 12, but Cork University Hospital was reported to be as high as 74.
Dr Wilson said pressure across the GP workforce since mid-November was bad, but now it’s ‘particularly bad.’
‘We have extended our daytime hours, and are doing Saturday morning clinics,’ said Dr Wilson, ‘and anyone that has an acute illness is, if at all possible, seen the same day.
‘People forget that it is the local GPs who are also doing the out-of-hours work, so we have a busy day, then a busy night, and weekend shifts as well,’ she said. ‘Our daytime is choc-a-bloc, so a lot of routine work is being delayed and deferred because of the current pressures.
‘People who should be admitted to hospital,’ Dr Wilson added, ‘are not being admitted to hospital, and people are being discharged way ahead of schedule, which is increasing the strain on the community services, and these practices are putting people’s lives at risk.’