Page last updated at 10:20 GMT, Saturday, 27 December 2008

Superbug overshadows health service

hospital beds

by Dot Kirby
BBC NI health correspondent

One story dominated health headlines this year.... a deadly strain of the hospital superbug Clostridium Difficile - or C diff for short.

A C diff outbreak hit hospitals in the Northern Trust area.

The strain, called 027, was diagnosed in a patient in September 2007.

Then, in January 2008, the Trust formally declared they had an outbreak.

By the time it was over in August, dozens of deaths had been linked to the superbug.

A public inquiry into what happened has now been set up.

Patients themselves have a responsibility. And so too do visitors

One of the key questions it will seek to answer is - exactly how many people died?

Whatever the total, the outbreak was one of the worst and longest running in any UK trust.

But lessons have been learned.

Even more emphasis is now being placed on staff washing hands between patients, there's even tighter restrictions on the prescribing of antibiotics and even more money is to be spent on hospital cleaning across Northern Ireland.

The moves come fifteen years after hospital acquired infections started to become a big problem in hospitals here.


Of course these measures are only part of the solution to hospital acquired infections like MRSA and C diff.

Patients themselves have a responsibility. And so too do visitors.

During the year, all trusts adopted a policy which would curtail hospital visiting.

More emphasis has been placed on hand washing for doctors and visitors

However anecdotally, there seems little evidence that the public have taken much notice - or that their lack of adherence is being adequately policed by the trusts.

The outbreak in the Northern Trust also led to one family telling their chilling story of C diff.

How their mother had tubes delivering vital antibiotics and fluids removed. How she was then placed on what the Trust called the "Pathway for the Dying."

But her family insisted the tubes were replaced and, three weeks later, their mother was discharged from hospital.

The Northern Trust have refused to comment on whether the doctor involved his been reported to his professional body, the GMC.

Mental Illness

However, the doctors involved in another significant story are being investigated by it.

In 2005, a mentally ill women killed her nine-year-old daughter and then took her own life.

But an official report into what happened - released at Easter - found that the woman had three times told health professionals of her intention.

And no-one had seen fit to inform child protection services.

Other stories in the headlines were recurring themes from previous years.

Shortages of places to look after those with a learning disability and a shortage of beds to care for the acutely mentally ill were again in the news in 2008.

And short-comings in care of the elderly were also highlighted.

It emerged that seven nurses had been suspended from a nursing home in Antrim.

And then two care assistants, who worked in other homes, spoke out.

They said they often came across carers in old people's homes who were indifferent, lazy, even cruel to those in their charge.

All the above components could be said to add up to a gloomy annual report card for the health service.

While it is worth reflecting that the vast majority of inter-actions with it would be rated as "satisfactory," the overall end of year verdict should probably read: "Could Do Better".

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