No quick fix for ills of the NHS
The scale of the crisis facing the health service in Northern Ireland is deepening as winter pressures add to the problems. In a very rare move, all five health trusts have cancelled some planned operations because of the level of demand coming through the doors of their accident and emergency departments.
Beds normally used for patients recovering from surgery are now being pressed into service to cope with the overflow of emergency admissions.
This is not a problem unique to Northern Ireland, as a number of hospitals across England have declared Major Incidents - that is they are experiencing exceptional demand for their services - and many have also cancelled or postponed planned operations.
The NHS in England has also posted its worst ever set of waiting time figures for people attending A&E units, although they are still better than those in Northern Ireland, whose total population is less than half of that of Birmingham.
The problems of the NHS are fairly easy to identify - increasing patient demand because of an ageing population with more complex medical needs; the ability of doctors to treat more diseases and conditions; the difficulty of getting people out of hospital after treatment and back into the community, which leads to bed blocking, and the desire of many people to go to A&E for speedy treatment rather than wait for an appointment with their GP.
These are factors common right across the UK and so far the debate has centred on the funding available to the NHS. Indeed, the three major parties at Westminster yesterday launched their General Election campaigns by promising ever-increasing amounts of money for the health service.
But the problems require more than mere funding. Most of the measures in place are to determine speed of treatment rather than quality, which adds to the pressure on staff already under great strain.
Care in the community, which was supposed to relieve the demand on hospitals, has never fulfilled its potential and GP services have become more restricted in recent years with people having to wait longer for appointments.
Despite politicians' promises there is no quick fix for the ills of the NHS. Instead, there should be a root and branch examination of the service involving hospitals, GP services and community care to see how they can be dovetailed more coherently.