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A&E websites will now tell patients how long they will have to wait

By Victoria O'Hara

Patients in Northern Ireland needing to visit their local A&E will soon be able to find out how long they'll have to wait before they receive treatment.

The online casualty wait checker is part of new plans to reduce treatment delays over the winter.

Live waiting times in emergency departments will appear on a web page that will also allow access to information on alternative care options.

The online tool is one of a number of initiatives being rolled out by health authorities as they strive to address an ongoing problem that last year saw 3,000 people spend more than 12 hours in an emergency department. But the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) called for more clarity over how the new plans would work.

Waiting times, however, for the minor injuries units at the Mid Ulster Hospital and the Tyrone County in Omagh are not currently available but the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) said work to shift its systems onto the online facility is planned.

The HSCB and Public Health Agency (PHA) are also establishing new networks in each health trust area that will bring clinicians, managers, community care and patient representatives together to develop solutions. Their aim is to have more services within hospital settings operating on a seven-day-a-week basis.

The funding is being allocated from within the Department of Health's annual budget. Part of the money is being used to facilitate GP practices to provide additional surgeries over the winter period and additional out-of-hours nurses.

HSCB chief executive Valerie Watts said it was not acceptable for anyone to wait over 12 hours for treatment, but said that it had improved since 2011/12 when the total was 10,000. Last year 3,000 faced waiting half a day for A&E treatment.

"The plan now is for the PHA and the board to take up the task of ensuring over the next few years that we bring that figure down to absolutely no one having to wait over 12 hours," she said.

Eddie Rooney, chief executive of the PHA, said a regional partnership would be developed.

"It involves making sure we make the best use of the expertise and resources that are sitting within the health and social care system," he said.

"But also new initiatives in terms of linking in GPs to the community to make sure that as few people as possible who don't want and don't need to come into emergency departments are treated at home."

But Garrett Martin, deputy director of the RCN, questioned how the level of staff will be met given ongoing recruitment problems.

He welcomed the new cash to combat waiting times but said it was unclear how a website and new structure "will solve all the problems".

"Staffing in hospitals is under significant pressure and hospitals are struggling to fill nursing posts. We need to see the detail of how they intend to do this efficiently," he added.

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