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We're failing the dying and their carers, says former health chief

 

By Steven Alexander

Vulnerable patients in Northern Ireland are dying while waiting for a hospice bed, a former health chief has said.

John Compton, the former chief executive of Northern Ireland's Health and Social Care Board, also warned that £70m in planned cutbacks will have "a huge inevitable impact on the horizon for the most vulnerable people".

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, Mr Compton - a Marie Curie trustee - said the planned cuts will create "undue pressure on end of life care services, with patients and their loved ones feeling the force of the impact".

"End of life care is different to other services, because there is no second chance to get it right. Care is either good quality or it is not, and a key measure of any society is how it supports people through such vulnerable and difficult times," he writes.

There are four adult hospice providers in Northern Ireland: Marie Curie, Foyle Hospice, Northern Ireland Hospice and Southern Area Hospice.

Mr Compton predicts that one of the "unintended consequences" of cuts to the health service will see people being discharged from hospital with inadequate care packages in place, or remaining in hospital because no packages are available.

He also expresses major concerns over the levels of quality of care terminally ill patients in hospices will receive.

Mr Compton has repeatedly warned that Northern Ireland's health service is in an unsustainable financial state, and that the political impasse at Stormont is making the situation worse.

"The risk is that hospice care providers may also be unable to discharge patients when they are ready to go home, preventing new patients from being admitted when they need care and support," he writes.

"The organisations working in this field have already experienced growing pressure in recent months, and the stark reality is that people who have been assessed for a hospice bed are dying whilst waiting for that service.

"Given most people want to be cared for at home, there is concern that a reduction in domiciliary care packages will also mean more demand for already stretched hospice services.

"Plus, an increased reliance on carers, who already provide crucial support for people approaching end of life. Carers make a huge contribution to the health service in NI, often at the expense of their own health and wellbeing, and a reduction in services will put them under increased stress."

Almost every day brings new concerns about the state of the health service.

Yesterday the BBC revealed that more than 600 people in Belfast are on a waiting list for help for drug or alcohol addiction.

Also yesterday a Belfast doctor revealed he is tired of letting down multiple sclerosis patients as cutbacks threaten to deny sufferers vital medication. Gavin McDonnell, a consultant neurologist at the Belfast Trust, said it was "a step too far". And the day before it emerged that agency nurses were costing the Northern Trust up to £100,000 each per year.

Meanwhile, the boards of directors of four Northern Ireland health trusts are to hold meetings next week over the £70m planned cuts.

The South Eastern, Southern, Northern and Western Health Trusts will all hold extraordinary meetings of their boards of directors next Friday to discuss the outcome of public consultations designed to determine where the axe will fall on services.

The Belfast Trust's public consultation process ended at midnight last night.

The proposals included a cut in agency or locum staff and a reduction of non-urgent elective surgery.

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