Treatment gap unfair to patients
News that a very ill young woman suffering from a life-threatening eating disorder is having to be moved to Scotland to receive the specialist treatment she requires begs the question why such treatment is not on offer in Northern Ireland.
It is not because of the rarity of the condition. Two years ago more than 400 people, a quarter of them young, were treated for eating disorders in the province.
The problem, as ever, seems to be finance. Around £2m a year is allocated to specialist eating disorders services. That might seem a significant sum of money until the cost of sending just 10 patients to England for specialist treatment is revealed. It was £2m.
The obvious inference to be drawn from those statistics is that the services here are not sufficiently funded, hence the need to send the most serious cases to other parts of the UK.
Health officials argue that the NHS - given the ever soaring costs of treatments and the ever increasing demand - cannot afford to provide comprehensive services for every ailment on patients' doorsteps.
A case in point recently was the decision to site children's cardiac services for the whole of Ireland in Dublin. As well as economic sense, clinicians argue that a centre of excellence where doctors perform complex surgical procedures or treatments on a regular basis is the best model for delivering the optimum care to patients.
Yet given the prevalence of eating disorders, especially among young women, it would be expected that a full range of services for this condition would be available in Northern Ireland. Certainly, it would seem to be a more cost-effective option than sending patients across to England or Scotland. However, the relatives of the young girl whose case we highlight elsewhere in this newspaper today are without doubt mightily relieved that she is being transferred to Scotland.
Of course there will be difficulties visiting her during what could be months of treatment, but those will be of relatively little consequence given that the family feared she would die in hospital here for want of specialist treatment. This case emphasises the need for a more transparent debate on the range of services that the NHS in Northern Ireland can afford to provide in the coming years. It is unfair that patients and their relatives can be left in a limbo of uncertainty before being sent elsewhere for treatment.