Emergency department nurse expresses concern at ‘relentless’ conditions

An emergency department nurse has described “relentless conditions” in hospitals.

Stephen McKenna admitted he would be concerned for any of his loved ones if they had to seek treatment in an emergency department at this time because staff are “overwhelmed”.

Hospitals across Northern Ireland have been exceptionally busy this winter, with appeals previously made for assistance to aid the swift discharge of patients who are fit to leave to free up beds.

Mr McKenna, who is a member of the Royal College of Nursing’s emergency nurse network, described recent weeks in emergency departments as “relentless”.

“It’s hard to put into words how difficult it has been for healthcare staff across the board and, in particular, in emergency care,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

“It’s quite possibly the worst I have seen it in my six years working in A&E.

“I would probably liken it to emergency care in developing countries and I can, hand on heart, say that that is the case.

“I had a nursing elective studying abroad, and I was horrified at what I saw when I was in Nepal, and I am starting to see similar things right here in Northern Ireland, and across the UK, and it is heart-breaking for the staff.”

Hospital declares potential major incident
Emergency departments in NI hospitals have been experiencing ‘unprecedented pressures’ (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr McKenna described patients cared for in areas not designed for care, such as corridors, people being nursed “head to toe, top to tail, side by side, crammed into spaces”.

“There are people literally lying and sitting side by side in conditions that would otherwise have been completely unacceptable just five years ago,” he said.

“Nobody came into nursing or medicine to provide sub-standard care and, as much as we try our best to deliver the best care that we can in line with the guidelines that our nursing and midwivery council set out, and the (health) Trusts expect from us, we are not able to give that because how can you look after someone who is lying side by side beside someone potentially with dementia, or delirium, confusion, detoxing from alcohol or drugs, agitated, distressed.

“Those patients need to have their own unique space. You’re supposed to be able to care for people with dignity – you cannot do that at the minute, the conditions are absolutely horrific.”

Mr McKenna said he would be “extremely worried” if he had a relative going into an emergency department.

“To the point where I would probably want to be with them every step of the way,” he said.

“I know, sometimes for nurses who work in emergency care settings, it can be a little difficult to have relatives at the bedside all the time because it can make your work a little more difficult because you can’t potentially get on with things you need to do, but I can see why people want to be there now.

“I would be really worried about leaving a grandparent, a mother, a sister, a brother in an emergency department for fear that they’re going to be lying somewhere potentially distressed by other patients, potentially not getting the care they need because the staff are just completely overwhelmed.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Health has said the support of the public is vital as health services “experience unprecedented pressures”.

A statement said: “Please play your part to help keep services running this winter by choosing the service that is most appropriate for your symptoms.

“By doing so, you will be on your way to getting better quicker, and at the same time easing pressure on staff.

“Emergency departments offer specialist care to those who are seriously ill or injured and to those whose life is at risk. In an emergency always dial 999.”

The statement added: “Self-care is the best choice to treat most minor illnesses, ailments and injuries.

“Community pharmacists can offer advice and treatment for a wide range of common conditions.

“Pharmacists can also refer patients to other healthcare professionals as appropriate.

“GPs, GP Out of Hours and community pharmacists services are all under pressure – so please be patient with staff.”

The department said flu and Covid are both circulating in Northern Ireland, along with other respiratory viruses.

It said: “This is contributing to the pressures currently being seen in our hospitals, GP practices and GP out-of-hours.

“For some people, these types of illnesses can be very unpleasant but can usually be managed through self-care at home with over the counter medications, fluids and rest.

“If you are eligible, get the flu and Covid jabs to help protect you and those around you.”