A new maternity unit for Belfast could be created up to five years earlier than expected, the health minister has said.
A review is under way of how best to use part of the new Critical Care building on the Royal Victoria Hospital site in Belfast.
The building is under construction, and one option is to put the maternity unit on the top three floors by 2013.
Michael McGimpsey said he wanted to maximise the potential of the facility.
"Given the current challenging economic climate facing the Health and Social Care service in Northern Ireland, it is vital that any funds are invested in areas of greatest need," he said.
"The new Critical Care building is a much-needed development and I want to assure the public that work will continue to complete it."
A new women's and children's hospital was promised over 10 years ago when the Jubilee Maternity hospital closed and merged with the Royal maternity.
But, according to BBC NI health correspondent Marie-Louise Connolly, in a different economic climate, it looks increasingly unlikely that plans to build the new hospital on the Royal's site would go ahead.
If the option to locate the unit in the critical care building is viable, the Women's Hospital or new maternity unit could be built by 2013 - up to five years faster than under the current proposals.
Breda Hughes of the Royal College of Midwives said the proposal was "a much unexpected but very welcome development".
"I'm really pleased that he has found a creative way of using space in the building which is nearing completion," she said.
"It's very timely that this announcement has been made; not only would the capacity be there but it would be in a modern and fully-fitted building.
"We need to see the detail, whether there will be individual rooms, we need to make sure things like water births are available, we need to see how it connects with the rest of the hospital for women and babies who may need critical care."
The Belfast Health Trust will now take forward the review which is due to be completed in the autumn.
Among the other options being considered are locating another priority service in the building, or continuing with the original plan.