Concern over ‘phone first’ A&E policy

Lisburn Councillor Sorcha Eastwood has called on the Health Minister to “urgently share his plans to deal with winter pressures and staff shortages across the heath service”.

Friday, 15th October 2021, 4:25 pm

Her call comes after the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust announced the emergency department at Lagan Valley Hospital would change to a ‘phone first’ service this week, meaning anyone wishing to attend its emergency department would be encouraged to call ahead if their condition is not life-threatening.

It was also revealed that the opening hours of the Lagan Valley Emergency Department would be reduced from 8am-8pm to 8am-6pm.

The Trust will also launch a public consultation into the new policy.

The Lagan Valley representative met with the Trust last week and said it laid bare the “fragility” of the health service here, due to Trusts struggling to recruit staff, particularly doctors and nurses.

“I have previously expressed concerns around the implementation of a phone first system and had been calling for consultation with staff, unions and the community,” said Councillor Eastwood.

“Although there was a commitment given on that, which is welcome, questions remain about the capacity of the health service itself, given staff shortages as we approach what will likely be the most challenging winter on record. As they work incredibly hard, staff are burnt out after two years of COVID. There is also a shortage of new staff coming through across all disciplines and bands.

“We now need to hear the Health Minister’s plans to deal with these challenges, given we all know what it coming down the line. Rehearsing the already well known issues facing our exhausted health service staff will not deliver for them or patients. What we need urgently are plans and actions to ensure services do not collapse in the near future.”

The Trust said that the changes were due to “the extreme challenges being faced at present”.

A spokesperson for the Trust, which says it remains committed to the Lagan Valley Hospital, explained: “The most significant of these challenges is a shortage of suitably qualified emergency medicine doctors, which the Trust is actively trying to recruit, alongside severe pressures presented by the ongoing impact of COVID-19.

“Currently, an average of 12 patients attend the Emergency Department at Lagan Valley Hospital daily between 6pm and 8pm. We anticipate that 90% of all those who phone will continue to be seen in Lagan Valley or given appropriate clinical advice over the telephone. For the remaining 10%, where it is not appropriate to attend Lagan Valley, they will be directed to their local Pharmacy, GP or to a more appropriate Acute Hospital Emergency Department.”

Despite concerns being raised by politicians and members of the public about the ‘phone first’ system, the Trust insists that “the majority of our staff understand and support the need for this change.”

One of the Consultants in Emergency Medicine at the Lagan Valley Hospital, Dr Rob Barclay insists, “This is an essential change to how we deliver urgent and emergency care in Lagan Valley Hospital. The result will be a service that is safer, more efficient and continues to meet the needs for the majority of the community we serve. It will direct a small number of people to services that can better meet their needs, first time.”

The Trust spokesperson concluded by saying: “We would like to thank the public, our partner organisations and elected and community representatives for their continued understanding and for the support offered to our dedicated and committed staff as they continue to work tirelessly in protecting and caring for our community.

Lagan Valley MP SIr Jeffrey Donaldson said he had spoken with the Trust Chief Executive about the changes. “Whilst I understand the rationale be the decision, which includes staff shortagesin securing an ED consultant for the Lagan Valley, I am nevertheless concerned about the potential impact of this change on the local community.”

Sir Jeffrey said he would be meeting with the Chief Executive to discuss the matter further and urged local people to make their voices heard over the change in policy and opening hours when the pblic consultation is launched.