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Health Minister Edwin Poots announces plan to cut A&E waiting times

By David Young

A task force is to be set up to examine ways to drive down accident and emergency (A&E) waiting times in Northern Ireland hospitals.

Health Minister Edwin Poots said the Health and Social Care Board would work with the Public Health Agency to improve services and standards of care.

The action group has been established in response to recent concerns about escalating delays, particularly in accident and emergency departments.

Mr Poots said he wanted 95% of patients seen within four hours - currently, 82% are seen within that timescale.

The group will aim to improve discharge procedures, with nurses given more powers to send patients home.

Accident and emergency departments in Belfast have been under intense pressure since the City Hospital's A&E department was closed last year.

The issue came to a head recently after a man died while waiting on a trolley in the Royal's A&E.

The group will look at a number of issues linked to waiting times.

Among these will be maximising the amount of surgery that can be done as day cases, increasing ward rounds, and measures to promote discharges earlier in the day, enabling senior nurses to discharge at weekends and public holidays.

The group will also look at how to deal with the estimated 20-30% of patients who arrive at A&E inappropriately. One potential option could see out-of-hours GP services provided on the same site as accident and emergency.

Mr Poots unveiled his plans to delegates at the Ward Sister Conference in Mossley Mill, Newtownabbey.

"I will not accept poor or sub-standard services in our hospitals," he said.

"I want to see a significant improvement in the performance of emergency departments across Northern Ireland and that can only be achieved through a broad approach, involving all areas of the health service."

The minister said the action group would be established with immediate effect.

"I want to know that all parts of the HSC are applying known, evidence-based good practice and I have asked for a robust plan of action to secure immediate improvement," he said.

"I want to be assured that the agreed actions represent the most effective interventions in respect of optimising unscheduled care."

Mr Poots outlined his expectations from the action plan: "I will expect 12-hour breaches to occur only in the rarest of circumstances.

"And this does not mean that 11 hours is acceptable - I also expect to see the vast majority of patients helped much more quickly, through much better performance against the target that 95% of patients should be admitted or discharged within four hours."

The elderly patient at the Royal's A&E had been left on the trolley for hours ahead of a scheduled transfer to a ward in the City Hospital.

He was found unresponsive by a medical transfer crew who arrived to bring him to the other hospital.

Despite sustained efforts to resuscitate the pensioner, he was declared dead around an hour later.

The Belfast Trust has initiated a "full and thorough" investigation into the incident, with Mr Poots demanding answers.

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