Edwin Poots pledge on Northern Ireland child cardiac services
The Northern Ireland health minister, Edwin Poots, has said retaining children's cardiac services in Belfast is proving a challenge.
The future of the service is in jeopardy after a UK review concluded that while the service in Northern Ireland is safe, it is not sustainable.
A decision was expected in February.
Mr Poots said the fact that the department had gone back to the drawing board should give parents some hope.
"At the end of February what was being suggested to me is something that neither the committee would find acceptable, nor the community would find acceptable and certainly I would not find acceptable, so clearly there is more needed to be done until we find a place that is acceptable," he told the NI assembly health committee.
"So the fact that we haven't reached a decision is positive in that sense, because, if we had come to a decision on the basis of the recommendation, it would have been something which would have caused huge consternation."
It is the first time the minister has responded publicly to the outcome of a Northern Ireland consultation on the future of children's cardiac services.
Children who require surgical cardiology intervention may have to travel to England.
The department is also exploring forming closer ties with the Republic of Ireland.
While parents of sick children would prefer the unit, based at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, to remain as it is, travelling to Dublin as opposed to England would be a more acceptable alternative.
One hundred children's cardiac operations are performed each year in Northern Ireland, with a further 40 cases dealt with elsewhere.
Mr Poots was giving evidence to the health committee on the post consultation document published by the NI Health and Social Care Board.Five options
The SDLP's Conal McDevitt said he welcomed the minister's assertion that he is focussed on finding an option that gives Belfast a viable future.
"The post consultation document identifies eight options for the provision of this service," he said.
"Three would mean no surgery would happen in Belfast, but five options would ensure that surgery and interventional services would continue in Belfast.
"The minister has five options in front of him that would ensure parents would be able to continue to access world class services here in Northern Ireland.
"One of the options even proposes the establishment of a centre of excellence in Belfast which would attract top surgeons and clinicians to Belfast as already happens in the cancer centre. Another option involves the creation of a new all-island network with centres in Belfast and Dublin."
According to the chair of the committee, Sue Ramsey, the consultation that followed was one of the most successful in Northern Ireland due to the high numbers of people who took part.