A strategy is being developed to increase the support given to care homes by doctors and nurses, it has been announced.
Health Minister Robin Swann revealed the plan yesterday as he reiterated his commitment to drive up standards in Northern Ireland's fragile social care system.
Mr Swann has vowed to secure investment for the sector, as well as drive through reform to ensure the safety of some of the most vulnerable people in society.
As part of this, he has tasked Northern Ireland's Chief Nursing Officer (CNO), Professor Charlotte McArdle, to work with care homes to develop a framework for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to support the sector.
"There has been an important shift in the complexity of care provided in care homes over recent years," he explained.
"A greater proportion of care home residents have complex clinical healthcare needs than would have been the case in the past.
"Residents who would have been in hospital five years ago and receiving palliative or end of life care are often now cared for in nursing and residential homes.
He continued: "Residential homes are often now providing a level of care that would have previously been found in nursing homes.
"The learning over the past few months has highlighted the high level of frailty and clinical acuity of residents in our nursing homes.
"It is beyond doubt that the sector needs much greater resilience.
"Whilst I recognise the wide range of measures deployed to protect residents during the Covid-19 pandemic, it is timely to review how we build on this support going forward.
"This will inform our ongoing response to the virus and help us rebuild care home provision for the long term.
"I have therefore asked the CNO to co-design a new framework in partnership with the care home sector for the provision of clinical care.
"This work will include examining how we would expand nursing, medical and multidisciplinary support, clinical leadership as well as specialist skills in collaboration with care home staff.
"This will include building on the important role of GPs in care homes."
The minister stated that providing alternatives to hospital-based care for older people is essential.
He added: "Care home residents rightly view them as their homes, providing care and connections to families and communities. We must never lose sight of that fact."
The move has been welcomed by Pat Cullen, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland.
She commented: "The RCN has been concerned for some time about a number of issues relating to nursing homes including the increasing complexity of patients.
"Nursing within this setting is a highly skilled role and nurses and health care assistants need to be reassured that they have the support of the multidisciplinary team when they require it, to ensure they can deliver safe and effective care to patients," she said.
"The RCN welcomes this commitment to increase support to this sector and we look forward to working with the CNO and Department of Health to develop better ways to support nursing and care homes.
"It is important that the principles of co-production and co-design underpin all decisions moving forward.
She added: "Importantly, this work will have a positive impact on the residents of nursing and care homes who are often vulnerable."