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Two of the lead doctors in the new all-Ireland network tell how the initiative is transforming care for desperately ill children

This weekend, for the first time the All Island Congenital Heart Disease Network will meet in Northern Ireland at its annual conference. The network for paediatric cardiology is the first formal structure of this kind to be established in Europe. Working across two different health care systems, both of which are already stretched in terms of resource, has presented many difficult challenges to us and this is still a fledgling network with many of the building blocks still to be put in place.

It is also ground-breaking in that the direction of its development is being guided by a board that is led clinically, but also includes very important input from representatives of parent groups, departments of health in both jurisdictions, and managerial staff from the partner institutions.

The All-Island Paediatric Cardiology Network is a pioneering initiative to improve care for children born on the island of Ireland with congenital heart defects. The formation of the network grew out of the need to respond to changes in the way that cardiac surgical services for children needed to be delivered as both the procedures performed and patients treated become more complex. The aim of the network is to ultimately provide a world class service for all children treated within it.

In a world where health services north and south are under great pressure and there is political uncertainty particularly in Northern Ireland, this project stands out as an example of the potential to combine skills and resource from both jurisdictions to enhance care for patients born on both sides of the border. On an island with a population of six million people there are many specialties, particularly for rarer conditions where collaboration makes good clinical and economic sense.

In 2017 for the first time approximately 100 children from Northern Ireland will have either cardiac surgical or interventional catheter procedures performed in Dublin. Likewise, some adolescent patients who have been on a long waiting list in the Republic of Ireland have been able to have their treatment carried out in Belfast. These are children who would all have had to leave the island for their treatment had this initiative not been in place.

Combining skills and resource from the two units north and south will build a service that treats a large volume of patients sufficient to allow staff to sustain experience and skills that are comparable to centres anywhere in the world. Ultimately that is to the benefit of the patients and is crucial to the provision of the best possible outcomes.

The challenges to achieving the goals of the network are financial, recruitment of skilled staff and harnessing the will of all involved to maximise efforts to deliver the plan. The governments north and south have committed to the network and pledged the funding necessary. This is a significant achievement in the current climate of austerity. Recruitment of highly specialised staff, particularly intensive care nurses, is a major challenge not just in Ireland but worldwide. We need to continue to explore innovative ways of employing, training and retaining our staff in a highly competitive global market.

This weekend's conference in Queen's University, Belfast brings together experts working in Ireland, north and south as well as internationally-renowned invited speakers.

More than 350 delegates, including families of children born with heart problems, will come together over two days in an event aimed at bringing new knowledge to those who attend and in turn that new knowledge being applied to enhance the care of the children we treat.

This pioneering health care initiative can be an exemplar for models of future care for other patient groups on the island. We are fortunate in Ireland to have highly trained, doctors, nurses and other health professionals. With a population of six million people there are many opportunities to move thinking in terms of healthcare delivery beyond the confines of our political borders and deliver better access to care. Some obstacles remain, but the potential benefits are so great that we must, from a medical, administrative and political perspective overcome them.

Dr Frank Casey: Consultant Paediatric Cardiologist, Clinical Lead All-Island Paediatric Cardiology Network (Northern Ireland)

Dr Paul Ozlislok: Consultant Paediatric Cardiologist, Clinical Lead All-Island Paediatric Cardiology Network (Republic of Ireland)

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