Patients’ lives may be at risk at St Vincent de Paule

Former parliamentary secretary raises alarm over potential health risks caused by mass transfers at elderly residence

Recent staff transfers at the only government hospital for the elderly have left dementia patients unattended by qualified medical personnel, raising fears for their health and safety.

The issue was flagged by former parliamentary secretary for the elderly Dr Mario Galea, who claims that qualified nursing staff previously assigned to a ward used by dementia patients have had to make way for non-qualified personnel who have neither the know-how nor any authorisation to handle specific medical emergencies.

Meanwhile individual nurses have been reassigned to other departments, including some which have no discernable need for medical staff at all - for instance, the customer care department, which Galea claims is now manned by a staff complement of four and six employees, three of whom are qualified nurses shifted from other hospital departments.

Approximately 70 employees at the St Vincent de Paul residence for the Elderly in Luqa are understood to have been transferred or otherwise relocated since the change in government.

These include the professional nursing staff of what was previously referred to as an 'activities centre' for residents at the government-owned facility.

This centre also doubled as a community service to help non-residents with relatives suffering from dementia.

The brainchild of former parliamentary for the elderly Mario Galea, the activities centre was set up in conjunction with UK dementia specialists in 2007. It was originally equipped to handle day cases, meaning that people could drop off family members suffering from dementia in the morning and then pick them up in the evening after a day's work.

Galea explains that the idea was to assist families caring for with dementia patients without necessarily separating the patients from the environment of their own home.

Patients at the activities centre were assisted by qualified nursing staff - a necessity, given that their condition can and often does give rise to emergency situations (frequent complaints include choking, injuries through falls and other accidents) which sometimes warrant immediate medical intervention.

But with recent administrative changes, the same ward has been left devoid of any qualified nursing staff. Nurses employed at the residence were informed by means of a letter signed by hospital director Saviour Xuereb that the activities centre was scheduled to be closed.

"You may wish to note that following an internal restructuring exercise, top management has agreed that that the activities centre within SPVR will be closed down and staff will be redeployed within our units," Xuereb wrote.

"In this regard, you are requested to report at Nursing Administration as part of the Relieving Pool as from 27th May 2013."

No reason was given for the proposed closure of the activities centre.

Nonetheless, the centre remains open to this day, even if the transfers are understood to have already been effected. As a result, the centre is now managed by nursing aides who, unlike qualified nurses, are not trained or authorized to provide potentially life-saving treatment should an emergency arise.

Mario Galea describes the situation as one which poses a direct threat to the health and safety, not only of the ward's permanent residents, but also the occasional cases which make use of the facility on a temporary basis.

"The problem is that the ship now has three captains," Galea, who originally set up the ward for dementia patients told Maltatoday. "The hospital falls within the remit of the Ministry for the Elderly and Community Care, but also under Franco Mercieca.

The third captain, according to Galea, is MP Anthony Agius Decelis, who has been appointed as "the government's representative to the hospital," with a permanent office on site."

However, the ministry for the elderly supplies a slightly different version of events. In replies to this newspaper's questions, a ministry spokesperson said that the activities centre will be merged with the entertainment section at St Vincent de Paul, to pave the way for the establishment of the Active Ageing Promotion Unit (AAPU).

"In the context of this restructuring, staff deployments were deemed necessary by the management of SVPR. The primary aim was to further increase efficiency and quality of service," the ministry official said.

"Management took into account requests for redeployment made by the majority of staff and is receptive to other requests which may be submitted by other staff."

A specific question regarding the role of Dr Agius Decelis in the set-up of the activities centre was however ignored.

Separately, Paul Pace, the secretary-general of the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses, confirmed that the union has issued a number of directives to members employed at SPVR directly in connection with the recent spate of transfers.

The MUMN has already voiced its concern that some of the transfers may have been politically motivated.

"We are very worried about the proposed closure of the activities centre," he said yesterday. "From a medical and community point of view this is a serious cause for concern. However, we have been left in the dark as to what is planned for this important service in future. It was partly because of the total lack of consultation of any kind that we felt the need to issue directives."

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The activities centre could be managed by physiotherapists and other allied health care professionals. Nurses should focus in practicing their profession in Wards and health centres. Those redeployed to customer care should also be sent to wards and theatres.