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Eight months after opening, hospital already faces cuts

By Victoria O'Hara

A multi million pound “enhanced” hospital which opened just last year may be forced to reduce beds and cut services at its Accident and Emergency department in Downpatrick in a bid to save funds.

The South Eastern Health Trust, which when it opened the £64m Downe Hospital in June 2009 highlighted its 24-hour consultant-led A&E department, said it is considering the moves.

The Department of Health had proposed it be developed as an Enhanced Local Hospital — which means as well as providing the services of a local hospital it included a 24-hour A&E.

But a shortage of middle grade doctors to cover night time shifts and budget restraints could lead to this service being affected.

A trust spokesman said: “It is costing the trust £250,000 a year for locum cover, and in the current economic climate we must look at the best possible use of resources.”

The hospital said that a final decision has not been made. Unions however, are warning that people will suffer if cuts are introduced.

The trust said it is tasked with delivering substantial financial savings, and with uncertainty over future budgets, it is currently looking at a number of options.

“While the ED (Emergency Department) is extremely busy during the day, as little as five patients may attend after midnight,” a spokesman said.

“It may be possible to look at new staffing arrangements which could release money to safeguard other services for a greater number of patients.

“Staff have been engaged in discussion, and as soon as there are firm options on the future service and staffing model, we will talk to our service users.”

The trust added that reducing the number of beds would involve working “more efficiently” to deliver treatment to the same number of patients and to at least the same level of quality.

Chief Executive of the South Eastern Trust Hugh McCaughey said the model of the hospital is “constantly evolving”.

“It delivers a number of services not previously available to patients in the area, including cataract surgery, bowel screening, and diagnostic work, while the number of day surgery cases has increased steadily.”

But Patricia McKeown from Unison said: “We have a whole new system, there is governance in there, there is accountability.

“They just cannot decide that because they haven't the money that they should have, then we are going to see bed reductions or A&E closures in Downpatrick.”

SDLP leader and South Down Assembly member Margaret Ritchie said she has spoken with Health Minister Michael McGimpsey and said frontline services such as beds and A&E should not be subject to any cuts or restrictions.

“They need to be ring fenced from any budgetary savings,” she said.

“The new Downe hospital provides an excellent service of care, far reaching across Co Down and beyond.”

Background

When it opened, a Downe Hospital information leaflet, published by the South Eastern Health Trust, listed as one of the services provided a consultant-led 24-hour emergency department.

After the first sod was cut in 2006, Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride declared: “It will continue to |provide the local community with access to a wide range of services, including a 24-hour consultant-led accident and emergency department.”

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