Around 350 patients in Ireland may be unnecessarily dying in hospitals each year as a result of overcrowding in emergency departments, a leading consultant has warned.
And a HSE report has estimated that at least 50 lives could be saved in hospitals each year by reducing the number of trolleys in EDs.
The mortality estimates could also include children awaiting care in EDs, it has emerged.
The figures were revealed amid renewed concerns about the high numbers of patients awaiting on ED trolleys for admission to hospital. There are 401 patients on trolleys nationwide today and there were were 347 on trolleys yesterday, which are regarded as very high figures for the time of year.
Mr Fergal Hickey, President of the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine (IAEM), told irishhealth.com that if you extrapolated figures from Australian research to Ireland, there could be as many at least 350 excess patient deaths each year in our hospitals as a result of emergency unit overcrowding.
He said ED overcrowding is grossly unsafe from a patient safety viewpoint.
The Australian research showed that overcrowding in emergency units leads to impaired responsiveness from staff to critically ill patients. This, the IAEM says was backed up by recent research in the British Medical Journal, which showed that ED overcrowding leads to increased harm to patients.
Mr Hickey said emergency department overcrowding in Ireland was leading to unnecessary deaths in situations where it was crucial to assess and treat patients quickly, such as patients with chest pain and stroke symptoms.
He also believed some child patients may be dying unnecessarily from conditions such serious asthma attacks due to delays in getting assessed and admitted through EDs.
The IAEM says growing bed cuts and difficulties in getting some patients discharged from acute beds to long-stay care is exacerbating the ED crisis.
Meanwhile, a briefing paper from the HSE has predicted that at least one life per week could be saved among patients attending EDs if a plan being drawn up to reduce trolley numbers is implemented.
It says improving acute medicine and chronic care provision will help reduce deaths.
The HSE says its plan to improve care by changing services and revamping practices though a new emergency medicine programme.
This will include introducing uniform standards of care throughout all EDs and ensuring that all critically-ill patients will be seen by a consultant in emergency medicine when on-site.
Clinical guidelines are to be produced for the top 20 emergency conditions such as chest pain, head injuries and abdominal emergencies.
In addition, the plan involves consultants providing on-call support out-of-hours. The HSE is expected to provide more details of how the plan will work before the end of the year. The plan will not however, specifically name remaining hospitals where 24-hour A&E should close.
In the meantime, Health Minister James Reilly is expected to announce next month further details of how his new Special Delivery Unit will as its first task tackle ED trolley waits.
Meanwhile, the IAEM has welcomed the recent HIQA directive requiring the management of Tallaght Hospital to stop placing patients on trolleys in corridors around its ED.