The future of the accident and emergency department at a Belfast hospital — where there are plans to remove emergency surgery — has been cast further into doubt.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Michael McGimpsey refused to be drawn on the viability of the casualty unit at the Mater Hospital amid proposals to centralise Belfast’s emergency surgery at the Royal Victoria Hospital — Northern Ireland’s regional acute hospital.
The future of the Mater’s A&E was first cast into doubt at the beginning of June when it emerged there are plans to designate it as a local hospital — essentially meaning many acute services will be scrapped.
And following the sudden closure of the A&Es at Whiteabbey and Mid Ulster in Magherafelt in May, questions have been asked as to whether three A&Es are required in Belfast.
While the Belfast Trust has denied there are any plans to close the A&E, Mr McGimpsey would not comment on its future.
“If you look at the standard laid out by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, they will say it is not what is in the A&E that is most important,” he said.
“Of course it is very important to have skilled staff working there but equally important are support services such as acute surgery, paediatrics, pathology and a full range of diagnostics.
“You must have the full range available 24/7 otherwise you can’t provide an A&E 24/7. You also need the throughput of patients to keep up the skills of the staff and to justify the cost of the department.
“These are very highly skilled people, they are not just doctors standing around with stethoscopes.
“These folk are not here to stitch fingers, they are here to look after major traumas.”
Mr McGimpsey said: “We have the Royal, City and the Mater, which is designated as a local hospital.
“The Royal is a major acute hospital where we can maintain an A&E but we can’t maintain a full blown A&E in local hospitals and I think that is an issue at the moment.”
Pressed on whether the A&E at the City Hospital should remain open, Mr McGimpsey said: “It is difficult to see how you put all your eggs in one basket.
“The City is a major acute hospital which will handle all cancer cases.
“There will be more theatres going into the City. If you look at the number of visits at the Ulster, Antrim City, Royal, Craigavon and Altnagelvin, they all have very big throughputs.”
And referring to the criticism of the closure of the A&Es at Whiteabbey and Mid Ulster, the Minister added: “The changes in the Northern Trust have resulted in improvements at Antrim Area Hospital.
“There is a business case for a new A&E at Antrim and I think it is feasible even given the current financial climate.
“What else could be more important than building an A&E at a busy acute hospital? I don’t believe the Executive has a choice but to make the money available.
“I hope to be in a position, if the Department of Finance let me, to get that moving in a matter of months.
“This is certainly one of my priorities.”