In the first weeks of 2023, a reemergence of hospital overcrowding struck Irish hospitals with a record of 931 patients waiting for beds in corridors at its peak. Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, described the situation as a “perfect storm” of illnesses such as flu, COVID, RSV and the usual pressures facing the health system. These factors leave medical professionals and student nurses with intense, exhausting work conditions. 

Those seeking medical assistance are asked by the Health Service Executive (HSE) to consider all options before attending emergency departments to ease the pressure faced by hospitals. However, Phil Ní Sheaghdha, General Secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), acknowledges that “the call is falling in the wrong area”. 

Private hospitals are offering their beds to those waiting on trolleys; and although some were able to provide assistance, the arrangements were deemed “both ad hoc and uncoordinated” by the Private Hospitals Association. 

Nursing homes also wished to support the health system by offering their beds, but hundreds of patients could not be relocated out of hospitals due to delayed transfers. These delayed transfers are often caused by delays in organising Fair Deal nursing home places or transitional care in other facilities.

While the number of people waiting in corridors has decreased, the HSE cannot confirm that figures will not rise again as the country is still in the middle of the wave of winter respiratory viruses. The chief executive of the HSE, Stephen Mulvany, has stated that total admissions into hospitals exceeded the health services “most pessimistic model” coming into the winter surge by 10%. 

The situation’s improvement is being accredited to the increased number of staff coming to work in hospitals over the peak of the crisis and attendance was up by 30% compared to normal levels in some hospitals. Stephen Mulvany has appealed to healthcare workers to work extra hours over the coming weekends to try and ease continuous pressure on the emergency department.

Student nurses currently on placement are included in the staff required to work overtime. Meadhbh Gibney, a student nurse in training at University Hospital Limerick, which experienced some of the worst overcrowding, says that the crisis has simply highlighted already existing problems in the healthcare system.

“No amount of preparation from lecturers or clinical placement could have mentally prepared me for what I was about to see and do. The overcrowding and understaffing isn’t a new issue, it was just exacerbated over the last few weeks. The problem was apparent to me when I started in first year three years ago.”

“We have been given jobs far beyond our scope of practice which is not our role as students. We are there to learn, to watch qualified and experienced people execute the job in a professional manner. The whole experience has been isolating and frustrating and I really wish there was more of a support there for us”, she said.

1st year UCD nursing student, Chris O’Dwyer, agreed that student nurses need greater support. 

“COVID-19, RSV and influenza are causing significant problems in our hospitals and healthcare workers are working extremely hard. However, the greater issue is definitely the treatment of hospital staff across all departments. There is a major problem with staff retention, more and more nurses are leaving the country in search of a better work life balance or leaving the profession altogether. Major improvements are needed to retain nurses and midwives – better pay opportunities, better work conditions and better support for student nurses and midwives,” he stated.

Jane Doyle, a 4th year nursing student at DCU, spoke of her anxieties surrounding the overcrowding once hearing of the situation into which she was about to enter. 

“It was very daunting watching the news knowing that we would have to go into the hospital. I was concerned that our education would be in jeopardy as staff nurses would not have the time to teach us, as that was a problem before the overcrowding got this bad”.

A spokesperson for the HSE has stated that the issue of hospital overcrowding is likely to continue for a number of years. While protests are taking place across the country calling for greater capacity in emergency departments, anger and fear about the situation remain among hospital staff and nursing students.

Ella Waddington – Assistant News Editor