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Preparing for Winter

Guide to help make the right choices for your health and healthcare when you need it.By Lisa McWilliams, Director of Performance Management and Service Improvement at the Health and Social Care Board.

It’s not surprising that there is so much talk at this time of year about health service winter pressures.

Right across these islands, we expect this winter to be a difficult period once again for patients and staff.

Demand for urgent and emergency hospital care is growing and the capacity of our system to deal with it is being stretched.

People aged 65 or older, and those with long-term conditions such as COPD, asthma, diabetes, heart or kidney disease can be particularly vulnerable to significant health problems.

The fact that more people are living longer is a great success story for health care. More older people in our community means more demand for care – and more pressure on services.

In the last five years, the overall number of Emergency Department (ED) attendances in Northern Ireland has increased by 17%.

Importantly, in this same period, there has also been an increase in the most seriously ill patients attending. These are often frail and elderly people, who can require longer in-patient stays and then more complex social care packages when they are ready to leave hospital.  This trend is set to continue with the number of people aged 65 and over set to rise by 74,500 by 2026.

The UK-wide shortage of medical and nursing staff is another important factor behind the challenges.

All of this means that our hospitals can get even busier than normal during winter months. As a result, some patients can experience long waits for beds, and staff are put under increasing pressure.

There’s no easy solution to these problems, but Health and Social Care Trusts are taking a series of steps to help the system cope as well as possible.

Our great staff will also be essential in helping us get through winter.

Longer term measures will also ease the burden on Emergency Departments. This is part of the transformation agenda for health and social care.

It includes offering new routes or pathways to medical care – for instance, direct GP referrals to other parts of a hospital for investigations or treatments for certain conditions, including respiratory, gastroenterology and diabetes conditions.

There’s ongoing investment in improving care available to people in their homes which also reduces the need for ED and hospital attendances.

Looking to the longer-term, the Department of Health has announced a Northern Ireland wide review of urgent and emergency care. It will aim to establish a new regional care model, with particular focus on meeting the needs of the rising proportion of older people in our population.

We can all play our part in combatting winter pressures. That means using services appropriately and doing all we can to stay well.

If you or a loved one are seriously ill or injured, then the Emergency Department is the place to go, however, busy the EDs may be.

If you attend an ED, you will be assessed – triaged – as quickly as possible, with the most urgent cases given the greatest priority, like major traumas.

However, if you do not need emergency care, a range of alternative services is available.  These include using the online A-Z symptom checker, seeking advice from a pharmacist, going to a Minor Injury Unit, or contacting a GP or the GP Out of Hours services (if your medical condition can’t wait until the GP surgery reopens).

For more information on ‘Staying Well’ this winter go to the nidirect website

Even something as simple as making sure you have got your repeat prescriptions before the festive holidays can make a difference. That’s a major reason for calls to GP Out of Hours services – meaning they have less time for other people.

Let’s all help ensure our fantastic and dedicated staff can provide the care to those who need it the most, when they need it.