I welcome this opportunity to raise the issue of overcrowding in the emergency department at University Hospital Limerick, especially the incident that happened last week. The concern is not only about what happened last week but the cart before the horse approach that has been taken to the reconfiguration of health services in the mid-west. I thank the Minister for being present to reply to this matter that I and my colleague, Deputy O'Donnell, are raising.
Last June, the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, warned that the emergency department at Limerick regional hospital was not fit for purpose as overcrowding there had reached critical proportions. According to the INMO trolley figures, 561 patients were on trolleys in the hospital in September. That is the highest figure recorded since statistics on this were first gathered back in 2007. A comparison of the figures for September 2014 and 2013 shows a 60% increase, which is an alarming increase.
I visited the emergency department at the hospital last Tuesday to see at first hand the numbers there. Before I describe what I saw, I pay tribute to the dedicated and hard-working staff who have to work in such an appalling and stressful environment having regard to what they have to endure, day in, day out. What I saw was disturbing. It was not a pretty sight. When I arrived, 23 patients were being treated on trolleys. It was almost a nightmare. Trolleys were lined up in the narrow corridors with family members gathered around their loved ones and many other patients were on their own wondering when a bed would become available. There was no dignity afforded to patients and little room for staff to treat them. It was bordering on unsafe. My thoughts turned immediately to the previous day when 50 patients were being treated on trolleys. I saw the emergency department when there were 23 patients on trolleys and it was a nightmare. At 7.30 a.m. on the previous Monday, 50 patients being treated on trolleys in the emergency department and they were waiting to be admitted.
The alarm bells are ringing on this issue. That is the reason Deputy O'Donnell and I are raising this issue. The trolley figures are a concern. Having regard to what happened throughout the summer with high trolley figures and with the influx of patients coming through in the winter period, the situation in the accident and emergency department will be unsafe. It will have to be closely monitored.
What would have happened if an emergency had occurred in the region on that morning where such a large number of patients were being treated on trolleys? It would have led to a serious situation in the region. I hope an interim solution can be found to the overcrowding in the department between now and when the new emergency department opens. We have been told some spare beds are available in the hospital. Will the Minister clarify the position with regard to the availability of spare beds? When I was there I was told that there were no spare beds as those beds were being used.