HealthAnalysis

Promise of almost 3,000 additional hospital beds is welcome – if Government delivers

With elections looming, one might think the announcement couldn’t have come at a better time for Government parties, but it is good news for patients

A shortage of hospital beds has been a long-flagged problem, with overcrowding a chronic issue. Pressure on the system is almost all-year round, while previously it was something that caused significant trouble only during the winter.

Every year there are stories of people languishing on trolleys while waiting for a hospital bed. In recent times, there have been some very tragic cases, such as the untimely death of 16-year-old Aoife Johnston, who died of sepsis after waiting almost 15 hours without a hospital bed in University Hospital Limerick.

Furthermore, bed occupancy rates in hospitals in the State often exceed 95 per cent. The recommended level is 85 per cent.

Without intervention, the problem is only going to worsen. With Ireland’s growing and ageing population, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) last year warned Ireland’s health service will be 3,000 beds short by 2030 without urgent investment.

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As such, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly’s announcement of almost 3,000 additional hospital beds is a significant investment in capacity.

The 2,977 additional beds, combined with the 355 new replacement beds, as well as the 1,015 beds that are under construction or which have already been committed, brings the total number of new beds to be delivered to 4,367 by 2031.

With elections looming on the horizon, one might think this announcement couldn’t have come at a better time for Government parties. Regardless, this is good news for patients – if promises are delivered.

The plan was informed by HSE modelling and site-by-site assessment, which Donnelly said seeks to bring “balanced, regional bed capacity”.

According to the plan, those in the southwest will particularly benefit, with Cork University Hospital due to have 412 more hospital beds in 2031 than it did 11 years earlier.

In the first tranche of delivery, which is between 2025 and 2028, Galway University Hospital will be a big winner with 198 new beds, while University Hospital Kerry is to receive 108 new beds during this period.

Some of the Dublin hospitals, too, will see a significant uptick in capacity; Beaumont Hospital will have 232 new beds delivered between 2025 and 2031.

But delivering new beds is an expensive endeavour, with each costing more than €1 million a year to create and run. Infrastructure and staffing are required, and these two things take time and money.

Recruitment and retention of healthcare staff is the other elephant in the room. Donnelly said an additional 10,000 nursing staff will be required for these beds. Hiring might not be a problem – with the HSE last year hiring more staff than it was funded to do – but ensuring they remain in their roles in the long term could be another issue altogether.

So while there are excellent plans in place, it remains to be seen whether they come to fruition.