Northern Ireland

Public to be consulted on NI hospital emergency care

Emergency Department

The public is to be consulted on the future shape of emergency care services in Northern Ireland.

The Department of Health is asking the public to get involved in determining how health services should be delivered.

A review of that area of medicine has been under way since November.

A summit is planned for June to discuss the findings and to identify possible solutions that will inform the public consultation on the care model.

The review - which included clinicians, royal colleges and those who use the services - also examined the availability of GP out-of-hours services and minor injury units.

'Nowhere else to turn'

The changes form part of the Bengoa report, which identified urgent and emergency care as one of the specialities "in most need of reform".

John Maxwell, an emergency department consultant at the Royal Victoria and Mater hospitals in Belfast, said change was required as they continue to face serious pressures.

"The level of pressure usually experienced at winter is now lasting throughout the year and is showing no signs of letting up," he said.

"Experience elsewhere would indicate that the answer is not to simply build bigger units, add more beds and keep trying to recruit more staff.

"Many people who currently attend emergency departments do not have life-threatening emergency care needs and could be dealt with more effectively in different settings, but there is currently nowhere else for them to turn," he added.

Analysis: 'Public needs correct information'

In the absence of Stormont ministers and a working Northern Ireland Assembly, civil servants are trying to push the transformation agenda along.

But for them to succeed they need to bring the public along with them - that requires informed public debate.

The number, location and function of Northern Ireland's emergency departments - what were traditionally known as A&Es - has been a long-running saga.

The Bengoa report, published in October 2016, said Northern Ireland's health and social care system required radical transformation to make it fit for the 21st Century.

While hospital closures were not mentioned in the report, choosing its words carefully it talked instead about centralising services and the need to look at "systems not structures".

Image copyright Wordcloud
Image caption This wordcloud of the 87-page Bengoa report shows its areas of focus

In a massive hint at the future direction of travel, the then health minister Michelle O'Neill said services would have to meet criteria to prove they are viable.

In the past two weeks alone, the future of how breast and stroke services will look has gone out to public consultation and now it has been announcement that emergency care services follows.

Bengoa argued that how health and social care services are delivered in Northern Ireland needs to change but often the biggest obstacles to change are politicians, the public, even the health unions.

In order to bring about that change and fuel debate the public needs to have the correct information.

What is unclear at the moment is how the Department of Health intends to do that.

It could involve roadshows, advertisements, billboards, even local question times where the public can question officials.

While most agree that change is required, the public deserve to be best informed in order to be part of the process.

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