Belfast Telegraph

I'm determined to face our health challenges head on

The tragic deaths of four babies from pseudomonas proved to be the most difficult period of Edwin Poots' first year in office

Long before I became minister, I knew the health service faced massive challenges. On my first day, I promised that I wouldn't be afraid to make tough decisions and I have been true to my word.

As a result, my first year in office has been the most eventful of my political career so far.

I am committed to a health and social care system that delivers for everyone. Patients will always be my priority.

Last June, I initiated a major review to ensure we had a safe and sustainable system for the long-term. Transforming Your Care, launched last December, is the blueprint for a system where patients receive the right care in the right place at the right time.

Earlier this year, we had significant pressures in some emergency departments as, for a few weeks, patients' hospital experiences were below standard.

While we have set about improving patient flows in hospitals, this is a short-term answer. The solution is to develop community-based care aimed at treating people away from hospitals (where appropriate).

I believe in using every available penny to provide high-quality services and this is why I am putting technology and innovation at the forefront of treating patients with chronic illnesses. We can enable patients to monitor their condition at home, leading to earlier intervention and reductions in hospital admissions.

The most difficult period by far was the deaths of four children in the neo-natal units at Altnagelvin in Londonderry and the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital in Belfast from pseudomonas.

And yet, no matter how challenging I found this period, it was nothing compared to the agony of the families of those babies who died and the anxiety of the families whose babies contracted pseudomonas.

At the end of March, Professor Pat Troop delivered her interim report. All of the recommendations that could be implemented immediately have been. I look forward to her full report at the end of this month.

I want to thank the families for contributing to the review. The death of a baby is devastating. To relive these events so others need not suffer in the same way must have been incredibly difficult, but it was selfless and hugely courageous.

Making a decision on the radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin Hospital was my first key priority. It will be up and running during 2016.

Also in the West, the South West Hospital opens in Enniskillen next month. It offers the people of Tyrone and Fermanagh the full range of services you would expect from a state-of-the-art facility.

Obesity and smoking remain as real challenges to society. Around 2,300 smokers die each year. To fight this, I introduced a new 10-year Tobacco Control Strategy, prohibited the sale of tobacco from vending machines and supported a UK-wide consultation on selling tobacco in plain packaging.

Another worrying statistic is that 8% of children (2-15) are assessed as obese. This is why I introduced A Fitter Future for All.

I will also shortly be issuing the Review of Maternity Service, which will help new mums and babies get the healthiest start in life together.

Just last month, I launched Northern Ireland's first strategy for social work, which outlines the role of social work in protecting children and vulnerable adults.

I want to thank the tens of thousands of staff whose priority is helping people. It beggars belief that there are those who feel they can physically or verbally abuse healthcare staff. I want a zero tolerance for abuse of healthcare workers.

The health service often makes the news, but, behind the headlines, I have had the privilege of meeting hundreds of ordinary people who depend on us, or are dedicated to helping others.

This is the best part of my job and it makes me more determined to work harder on their behalf.

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