Northern Ireland stroke services may be limited to four sites
Plans to overhaul stroke services in Northern Ireland may lead to fewer treatment centres for the condition.
At present stroke services are spread across 11 hospital sites, but it has been reported that this could be reorganised and concentrated on four sites.
In an unusual move, the Department of Health has launched a 12 week pre-consultation to hear the public's views.
The department reports that each year strokes in Northern Ireland account for more than 1,000 deaths, 3,000 hospital admissions and 55,000 days spent in hospital.
Seven proposals for change have been developed in partnership with stroke experts, survivors, carers and charities.
These include clot busting treatments such as thrombolysis being available at fewer hospital sites, reviewing the number of hyper-acute stroke units and seven-day assessments for patients who have suffered a mini stroke.
It's hoped these measures will allow faster access to experts and rehabilitation services, which in turn will mean fewer disabilities and more lives saved.
"The primary issue is how we get to the best specialist services and make them available on a 24/7 basis," said Neil Johnston, public affairs adviser for Northern Ireland Chest Heart and Stroke (NICHS). "There are deficiencies in the service now and it's about how we get to providing good services to people in Northern Ireland. With increasing specialisations, that may require less centres, but will provide better care."
He added: "For example, for a treatment to remove a blood clot mechanically, there's only going to be one place in Northern Ireland you can do that, the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
"People need to understand that point.
"The move to better and more specialist services is the primary issue.
"The geography is sensitive, but it's very much secondary."
Mr Johnston said that NICHS would be helping stroke survivors and carers to both express their opinions and to be better informed about any future proposals.
The charity also stated that reforms of services in other parts of the UK had seen a reduction in both deaths and disability from stroke.
As part of the pre-consultation, the department shared video interviews with stroke survivors.
Helen Graham from Co Armagh said her stroke came as a shock to everyone because of her healthy lifestyle.
"The time on the ward, I was quite traumatised by having the stroke and trying to take it in about what happened to me," she said.
"There was a delay in diagnosing my stroke initially.
"I often wonder and reflect if there had been a centralised stroke unit and I received a clot busting treatment, would that have made a difference to me and reduced my brain injury?" In January this year it was feared that a consultation on stroke services here would never materialise following the collapse of Stormont.
The 2016 Stroke National Audit found that Northern Ireland had no seven-day stroke therapy service, poor access to specialist stroke units and inadequate rehabilitation and long-term support in the community.
Speaking at the time, Barry Macaulay, director of the Stroke Association in Northern Ireland, said: "Despite the substantial progress which has been made and the many dedicated health professionals in Northern Ireland, our stroke services are lagging behind the rest of the UK."