'Lessons learned' as staff at Wigan's hospitals prepare for another busy winter
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While the cold, dark months have traditionally been the busiest time of the year, the high number of patients seeking care from the NHS now means it is considered to be winter “all year round”.
This culminated last winter with bosses at Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (WWL) declaring a “critical incident” several times, as patients were urged to only go to hospital if it was “absolutely essential”.
They said the A&E department at Wigan Infirmary was “full” and they appealed for people to support their loved ones to return home from hospital once medically fit to free up beds.
Preparations are now being made for the coming winter and staff are bracing themselves for another busy few months.
Prof Sanjay Arya, WWL’s medical director and consultant cardiologist, said staff across the trust were already “exhausted”, having worked “non-stop” since the pandemic began and thanked everyone for their efforts, from secretarial staff to surgeons.
He said: “There used to be a time, and I remember it very clearly, when we really worked our socks off from November to February/March and then the pressure would ease off and we got that four to six-month break to get ready for the next winter.
"But since Covid in March 2020, there has been no seasonal variation and the pressure has remained very intense in the hospital.
"Even though it has remained intense, it is clearly going to get even worse during the winter because of the added illnesses which come with the colder months.
"We have started preparations for the winter. We have started looking into how we can increase our medical, nursing and allied health professionals over the coming months, not only during working hours but outside working hours and also weekends and nights, so that if we get larger volumes of people coming with serious illnesses we are prepared."
WWL has also started its annual rollout of flu and coronavirus vaccinations for its staff, to protect them and patients from illnesses and to help to prevent days lost to sickness.
Prof Arya said: “Our vaccination programme started earlier this month and we are encouraging all healthcare professionals to have their Covid and flu jabs together. There has been a good uptake on that, but it’s ongoing.”
It is hoped that measures being taken, including looking at staff rotas and extending the hours of some services, will prevent WWL having more critical incidents this winter.
Prof Arya said: “We have learned some lessons from last time and we are putting in measures and processes in place to avoid declaring critical incidents.”
While hospital bosses and their staff are doing what they can to prepare for the busy winter months, people living across the borough are being urged to do their part.
A vital part of this is by only going to A&E if necessary, such as with limb, sight or life-threatening conditions, and seeking medical care elsewhere if possible.
This includes only calling 999 for an ambulance if needed, as the ambulance service is also under “immense pressure” and “a good number of people” arrived at the hospital in one when they did not need to, Prof Arya said.
He thanked everyone who has been vaccinated against coronavirus and flu in recent years and urged them to have the jabs again this winter, especially vulnerable people with complex or multiple medical conditions.
He said: “There are already some signs of a rising number of Covid cases in the community. Thankfully, because a large number of people have had their vaccines, we have not seen a big impact from that on hospital admissions. We have seen people coming into A&E with Covid but not being ill enough to require hospital admissions or intensive care admissions.
"There is always a mutation and a newer variation comes, so it’s so important that people get the Covid booster this winter.
As well as preparing for winter, staff at WWL’s hospitals are continuing to work through the “huge number” of patients waiting for surgery, as a backlog built up during the pandemic.
Prof Arya said: “Despite the intense pressures we are facing through A&E, we have continued with the waiting lists. We are putting on additional sessions, we are working weekends and late into the evenings and I really want to thank my medical, nursing, health care professionals and management colleagues who are working very hard to try to resolve the backlog of patients waiting to have procedures and surgery.”
He urged patients unable to attend their appointment, as well as those waiting for surgery who feel they no longer need it, to let the hospital or their GP know.
Some elective procedures have been cancelled during periods of industrial by junior doctors and consultants, in a dispute with the Government over pay, so Prof Arya urged both the Department of Health and staff to “come to the negotiating table to see if a resolution can be achieved”.
"We don’t need to have further industrial action,” he said.
It is hoped that waiting times for some tests will drop in the coming months as the new community diagnostic centre at Leigh Infirmary prepares to open its doors in November.
Prof Arya said: “This will enable the patients to have their diagnostics sooner, their treatment can start sooner and therefore we are very proud that it’s going to be operational later this year.”