Action is needed to make hospitals fit for purpose
Problems in our accident and emergency units make the case for reform of the health service unanswerable, says Edwin Poots
Like most people, I have been appalled by the serious problems experienced by patients recently in our emergency departments. These difficulties have only served to reinforce my commitment to reform how we deliver health and social care.
Last summer, when I announced the review of health and social care, I stated: "It is clear that the full range of health and social care services is unsustainable in its current form if we are to deliver the best outcomes for everyone."
John Compton and the review team delivered their report, entitled Transforming Your Care, and just before Christmas I announced my intention to implement it.
Far from undermining my belief in this reform, the recent problems in the Royal Victoria, Antrim Area and Ulster Hospitals have only further convinced me there is only one path we can follow.
The recent challenges faced by our hospitals are not new and I am not the first health minister to be presented with them. I will not shy away from taking action.
I have left senior officials in my department, the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and the chairs and chief executives of trusts in no doubt as to what I expect.
They will deliver improved patient-flows in our hospitals through a range of measures such as maximising senior doctor decision-making, providing more day case surgery and more efficient patient discharging and triaging.
However, this is only a short-term component of a broader solution. We run the risk of this problem re-emerging if too many people are admitted to hospital when they do not need to be there.
It is also useful to set emergency department pressures in the appropriate context. In total, 700,000 patients attend these departments every year and the vast majority receive very high-quality care.
While we will seek to ensure the best possible hospital environment and duration of wait, these objectives will never outweigh providing the highest-quality interventions.
There have been massive improvements in how we treat some of the main killers such as stroke, heart attack and major trauma in recent years and saving lives will always be my priority.
I have never been under any illusion that the scale of the task we face, but it is achievable.
We need to end avoidable hospital stays, improve outcomes for everyone that needs our services, maximise our use of new technology and bring care closer to the doorstep by fully involving individuals and their communities.
In Transforming Your Care, we have the blueprint to deliver reform. I recognise that the solution is not simple, straightforward, or immediate.
While I cannot say the process ahead will not be challenging, I can assure you that it will be planned and managed. Transformation on this scale requires significant contributions from all areas of the health and social sector. We need strong leadership and that is why we have put in place robust governance arrangements to ensure effective delivery of reform.
We have leaders in place to guide us through the reform process and I will hold them to account in the same way you hold me to account.
I am constantly updated on the progress of this programme of work and those who obstruct change will have questions to answer - to me and to the communities they serve.
Local population plans will be completed by June. The overall journey will take years, but significant change must occur within months.
I want everyone to be confident that the health and social care system will deliver for them - if and when they need it.
The scenes I have witnessed, the reports I have read and the stories I have heard about the recent experiences of patients in our hospitals have simply increased my determination to remain focused on reform and driving forward fundamental and far-reaching change.