Northern Ireland

BMA's warning over new Antrim hospital emergency department

Antrim Area Hospital
Image caption The new emergency department at Antrim Area Hospital is due to open

The union for doctors in Northern Ireland has warned the new emergency department at Antrim Area Hospital is not enough to solve its current problems.

The BMA welcomed the £14.2m building, which opens on Wednesday.

However, it said a range of other measures must also be in place to ensure patients are seen promptly.

It said the department was needed, but it would take more than bricks to solve waiting lists and breached targets.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) also welcomed "the change of environment in the emergency department" but said there had been "significant problems" at Antrim Area hospital in recent times.

Staffing levels

The RCN had asked the Northern Health Trust for information on its plans to recruit more nurses for the larger facility, but with fewer than 48 hours before the new unit was due to open, the RCN told the BBC it still had not been given details on additional staffing.

However, speaking on the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme on Tuesday, the trust's director of nursing, Olive MacLeod, confirmed that 20 new nurses have been recruited to work in the new unit.

She also said shift patterns had been changed to improve staffing levels during busy periods in the emergency department.

"We have very good working relationships with our RCN colleagues and other trade unions and I will be speaking with (the RCN director) to rectify that communication issue that you have identified," Ms MacLeod told the programme.

The new building is almost double the size of the old accident and emergency department (A&E) and is the single biggest capital investment in the hospital for many years.

Built on a site adjacent to the old A&E, the glass-fronted modern exterior is brighter and more accessible to both the public and emergency vehicles.

The unit is equipped with the latest innovations in design and technology, which according to a spokesperson at the Northern Health Trust, will provide patients with secure, safe and high quality services.

The trust has been the focus of much criticism following the closure of the casualty departments at Mid-Ulster and Whiteabbey hospitals in 2010.

As a result, Antrim's A&E department is now the only provider of emergency care for people in the area.

That is a problem due to a growing population - a population that is older with greater demands from the health service.

The trust has consistently breached its four-hour waiting-time targets, some patients have been left for more than 20 hours on hospital trolleys and staff morale has been extremely low.

However, Ms MacLeod said there was a plan in place to address waiting time problems and they were seeing signs of improvement in both their four-hour and 12-hour targets.

"We are now 43 days without a patient having to wait for 12 hours for treatment and we're really very proud of that," she said.


The current A&E was built 17 years ago and was designed to accommodate about 40,000 people going through its doors every year.

However, the closure of the two local casualty departments has meant Antrim hospital inherited extra figures, creating an over-populated and heavily burdened department.

Last year, it had to deal with 73,000 patients.

Calum MacLeod, Interim Medical Director for the Northern Health Trust, said the new department would provide "patients with the latest innovations in technology and a department better equipped for the number of attendances it receives".

"We want to provide the very best care for our patients and this development will give us the facilities within which to make further improvements in waiting times and ensure patients' needs are met," he said.

The new building has considerably more floor space. The design is intended to improve patients' flow within the healthcare system and most importantly their experience of being treated.

However, some members of staff told the BBC that it will take more than bricks and a lick of paint to mend what is broken within the Antrim Area Hospital.

One member of staff who wished to remain anonymous said while they were "delighted to have a brand new building which is modern, what's also required is more staff".

"We need more nurses to deal with the numbers coming through the door," they said.

"The extra floor space will be used to house all the additional trolleys we have to use to care for patients as there are never enough beds in the system."

Another employee said there was a more optimistic air about the place, but they would have to see what impact the patients would have.

"After all it is not until those people are in the building and we have to work around them that we'll know if it's made any difference," they said.

"It will take it a wee while to sort itself out. Hopefully people and managers will be patient."

Management at the beleaguered health trust say the new department is just one part of a very big healthcare jigsaw.

For the system to operate smoothly all of the pieces must be in place. That includes the out-of-hours service, GPs, pharmacies and the public knowing when they should attend.

Capital investment

Mary Hinds, Senior Director for the Northern Health Trust, said: "The opening of the new department will supplement the changes taking place within the trust as part of the turnaround report.

"A whole system approach is being taken to ensure patients receive the right care, in the right place, at the right time and we will continue to work in partnership with GPs to ensure that patients who need emergency treatment get access to this as quickly as possible."

A trust spokesperson told the BBC that it needs to match the resources it has with the needs of people using the service.

Those with coughs and colds should ask for help at the pharmacist while those with limb injuries including bites, burns and minor wounds should attend the Minor Injury Unit.

Only those with life-threatening emergencies such as stroke, heart attack and or severe bleeding that cannot be stopped should according to a health trust spokesperson go to the emergency department.

The introduction of 15 cubicles has received a mixed reception. While they will provide privacy and dignity to very sick patients, others believe there is not the staff to give individual care.

NIPSA representative Kevin McCabe said members were looking forward to working in the new area.

"Our members have been told that the layout now means Antrim is one of the best emergency departments in Northern Ireland, that's great," he said.

"But we'll have to wait and assess if the extra space is enough to address the old problems, admissions, discharge and poor bed capacity."

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