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Simon Hamilton: Parties must embrace shared vision of a new health service for Northern Ireland

By Simon Hamilton

Published 16/02/2016

Common goal: World-class NHS
Common goal: World-class NHS

Tomorrow the expert panel I appointed earlier this year will host a health summit. The purpose of this event will be to consider, discuss and, if possible, agree a set of principles that will guide the panel's work on how we can deliver the best possible health and social care system for the people of Northern Ireland.

The panel has already begun its crucial work under the chairmanship of Professor Rafael Bengoa. The panel members have a wealth and breadth of knowledge and experience of health and social care, both here in Northern Ireland and further afield.

I am certain that they will ably lead the debate and expertly advise us, but the success of their work will depend on the ability of Stormont to embrace a shared vision of a transformed health service.

I think we are all experienced and realistic enough to know that reaching such an outcome will be challenging. But it is absolutely critical to the long-term success of the health service in Northern Ireland that politicians of all persuasions agree on the way forward.

Consensus is crucial if we are to conquer the challenges facing health and social care and build the sort of safe, high-quality, patient-centred health service that our people deserve.

The stakes are high. Even though the DUP has ensured that we have invested ever-increasing amounts in health since 2011 (to the point where my department's budget now accounts for nearly 50% of the Executive's total spending), pressures still persist.

It is to be celebrated that life expectancy in Northern Ireland is rising, but a growing and ageing population presents challenges.

So, too, do the ticking time-bombs of unhealthy lifestyles and obesity. Our health and social care system, as currently configured, simply isn't sustainable in the face of such sizeable challenges.

Political parties in Northern Ireland have faced seemingly insurmountable problems before, yet we have, through purpose and fortitude, defied the doubters and reached agreement.

Many believed policing and justice powers couldn't be devolved, but they were. We were told the Assembly would collapse over welfare reform, yet a way forward was found.

Some might think that reaching agreement on the future of health and social care in Northern Ireland is a step too far and that taking politics out of health will be impossible.

Based on experience, I have some sympathy for that view. We are all understandably deeply passionate about the health and wellbeing of our friends and families and communities. What we desperately need to do is turn that passion into a common goal of transforming our health service.

As I meet with health and social care professionals across Northern Ireland, I am impressed not just by their dedication to their work, but also their determination to shape a health service fit for the future.

The people of Northern Ireland want us to deliver a better health service. It is now time for all of our political parties to match the determination of our staff and our citizens.

I am in no doubt whatsoever that we can create a health and social care system that is a shining example to others. In the past week alone I saw for myself the superb work being carried out by the staff at the regional virus laboratory at the Royal to create a new test for bacterial meningitis, and some of the best in the UK stroke outcomes for patients delivered in the South West Acute Hospital.

It is that sort of excellence that I want us to spread across every aspect of our health and social care system with the central aim of achieving a safe, high-quality service for patients.

The prize of our political parties working together positively will be the realisation of a world-class health service in Northern Ireland.

That will be worth the effort to put aside sometimes petty political differences to achieve nothing less than the best for all of our people.

Simon Hamilton MLA is Health Minister

Belfast Telegraph

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