Northern Ireland

Health chief pledges action plan after Belfast hospital death

A health chief has told the BBC a robust action plan is being implemented to ensure patients are moved quickly through Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital's emergency system.

John Compton was speaking after an elderly patient apparently died unnoticed on a trolley in A&E.

The Irish News said the patient was found dead by ambulance staff.

They were to transfer him.

Belfast Health and Social Health Care trust has begun a full investigation.

It said the elderly man was found unresponsive and died shortly after.

It is not clear how long the man had been on the trolley.

Mr Compton, who is chief executive of the Health and Social Care board said the so-called escalation arrangement is not as a result of this latest incident, but because in the past month the Royal's emergency department had been persistently breaching its waiting targets.

He said senior managers would be closely monitoring the system each morning and asking why patients were spending a long time waiting to be seen.

"What is really important is to get to look at how we use our accident and emergency and how it works as part of a total hospital," he added.

"Not because of this case, but because the board polices what happens in emergency departments.

"We have been tracking for the last couple of weeks and noticed that things were difficult.

"We have escalated, we have gone to the organisations not just in Belfast but across the Province which means that we are going to look closely at the functioning of accident and emergency departments and the steps that we know make them work better and to see what is obstructing those steps being in place."

Mr Compton said the elderly man's death had been a "tragedy" for his family, but that he did not want to pre-judge any investigation.

He added that 80% of people who went to A&E departments in Northern Ireland were "seen, treated and admitted within four hours".

Earlier, trust medical director Dr Tony Stevens said the emergency department at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital had come under such pressure recently that the system had been "pushed to its limits".

The elderly man was brought to the Royal Victoria Hospital's emergency department by his family.

As there were no available beds at the Royal, staff arranged for him to be transferred to a ward in the City Hospital.

As he was not in a critical condition, a patient care crew was booked as opposed to paramedics who can deal with an emergency.

But according to the Irish News, when the ambulance crew arrived they found that the man had died.

When a person is admitted to A&E, staff are supposed to check a patient every 30 minutes, including taking pulse and blood pressure.

Inquiry under way

The BBC understands a full investigation is now under way including inspecting hospital notes to see just how often this patient was monitored.

It is understood the death happened within the last few weeks.

Health Minister Edwin Poots said on Thursday: "There are concerns around this case, and I am keen to hear a full explanation from the Belfast Trust when it has concluded its investigations."

Trust medical director Dr Stevens said: "People do occasionally die. But nobody dies alone in an emergency department. Those are emotive words," he said.

Image caption Trust Medical Director Tony Stevens said a full investigation was under way

"I have no reason to believe a person died alone. What we are looking into is whether a particular patient received the level of care that is required."

Dr Stevens said the quality of care given by doctors and nurses was not a concern, nor was it about a problem with triage - where patients are seen initially for an assessment about the urgency of treatment needed. He said he was satisfied that a safe system was in place.

"We are focused on patients and we are delivering the best care," he said.

"But we came under sustained pressure last week which required our staff to work incredibly hard over a long period of time."

The trust director said it was focusing on getting people through A&E as quickly as possible and encouraging people who could get help from GPs not to come to the hospital.

"The key going forward is to ensure that we minimise the number of people who need to come to hospital," he said.

Director of the Royal College of Nursing NI Janice Smyth said fundamental reform of the health system in Northern Ireland was needed. She said too many people were turning up in hospitals because not enough services were available in the community.

She added that nursing staff's professional judgement was being compromised because of the volume of work they were being expected to get through.

Last November, Belfast City Hospital's Accident and Emergency Unit closed its doors and the Royal became the main hub of emergency care in Belfast.

Mr Compton said the latest action plan was "not to do" with this "temporary closure".