All-Ireland plan for heart surgery
An international team of experts is to assess the future of children's heart surgery on an All-Ireland basis.
Surgeons from Dublin will see young people during a six-month reprieve for patient care at Belfast's specialist centre, while a team of American experts consider the wider future of services for those born with cardiac disease, Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots said.
Many parents of children affected in Northern Ireland oppose having to travel to Dublin or Great Britain for operations.
Mr Poots told Stormont MLAs: "My key priority throughout this process has been, and remains, to ensure the delivery of a safe and sustainable service for these vulnerable children."
Congenital heart conditions are rare, particularly given Northern Ireland's much smaller population. Doctors in Great Britain are seeing 300-500 cases a year compared to 60 surgeries last year in Belfast, which can raise problems for doctors maintaining their skills through regular work. Sharing resources and workload with Dublin would increase the number of potential patients and make a specialist service on the island sustainable.
Families in Northern Ireland have expressed concern that this would lead to centralisation of treatment in Dublin, entailing additional travel.
Under interim plans agreed by Mr Poots and Irish Health Minister James Reilly, medics in the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children and Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Dublin would work together to provide a top quality but more convenient service for families living in Northern Ireland. The US experts are to consider whether a two-centre service based in Dublin and Belfast is feasible in the long-term.
For some operations children will still need to travel to Great Britain centres like Birmingham.
Health officials from both sides of the border have spent months attempting to reach a solution. Belfast's lead surgeon in the specialism, Prof Freddie Woods, is retiring., leaving just one remaining paediatric surgeon at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
Mr Poots said: "Having considered all of the advice that has been put to me, it is my view that the only prospect for retaining children's heart surgery in Belfast on a long-term basis is to forge a children's heart services integrated network arrangement between the Belfast Trust and the Dublin children's heart centre.
"This network offers the prospect of a single service providing surgery in both Belfast and Dublin.
"I can't guarantee that such a model would necessarily provide a solution into the longer-term, but it is only right that I am guided by the best possible expert professional advice in considering this. Such decisions matter too much to get wrong."
The panel conducting the review is chaired by Dr John Mayer, a consultant cardiac surgeon at Boston Children's Hospital and includes Dr Adrian Moran, a consultant cardiologist in Portland, Maine. An anaesthetics expert will be appointed to complete the team before it starts work in January.
Irish health minister James Reilly said: "This review is intended to lead to the establishment of an integrated service for cardiology and congenital cardiac surgery for all the children of this island, based on international best practice.
"I am very pleased that such an eminent group of clinicians have agreed to dedicate so much of their time over the next few months to help us achieve this goal of an effective integrated service which will be so important to the children of this island and their families."