BMA boss warns of pressure to meet rising demand in health budget
The chairman of the BMA in Northern Ireland has warned health spending is not keeping up with demand.
NHS chiefs are asking patients to stay away from hospital emergency departments in Northern Ireland unless their condition is urgent or life-threatening.
A "high level of pressure" on medics over the Christmas and New Year period has meant people are having to wait longer than usual to get medical attention.
BMA chair Dr John Woods highlighted recruitment problems in emergency medicine and emigration of doctors to other countries, partly due to working conditions .
He told public policy magazine Agenda NI: "The public want the best possible care available. Trying to deliver that with limited budgets is a big challenge.
"The health budget has not been increasing at the rate that demand has been rising, in particular increasing to meet the needs of an ageing population."
DUP health minister Simon Hamilton has said he wants to increase spending by at least £1 billion by the end of the next Assembly term. The amount earmarked has already risen by more than £200 million.
In a joint statement, the Health and Social Care Board and Public Health Agency have said the public should consider other options before turning up at emergency departments.
They include GPs, Minor Injury Units or local pharmacies if symptoms are not urgent or life threatening.
Transforming Your Care is a government programme designed to make efficiencies and embrace technological change.
Dr Woods added: "Healthcare inflation runs ahead of normal inflation, partly because of the ageing population and also because of the pace of technological change - there are more and more things we can now do.
"Unfortunately, healthcare does become progressively more expensive per capita with time."
In the 14-day period over Christmas and New Year there was around a 3% increase in the number of people attending emergency departments across Northern Ireland compared to the same period last year, and around a 10% increase compared to two years ago.
A spokesman for the Health and Social Care Board said: "As a result of plans in place across the health and social care system, emergency and urgent care services in general managed reasonably well over the holiday period.
"However, with an increase in demand over the weekend, it was appropriate, as part of our ongoing Choose Well campaign, to ask the public to assist us in ensuring emergency departments are used appropriately, and only for urgent conditions such as a suspected heart attack or stroke, serious head injury or serious accident. This helps ensure that the sickest patients can get the care that they need.
"We acknowledge that a number of people have had to wait longer than expected to be admitted to a hospital bed and we apologise for any inconvenience caused. There is a concerted effort being made to ensure that the patient journey through the whole system and into the community is as simple, safe and straightforward as possible."
The HSCB has invested more than £10 million to improve patient flow, support increased diagnostic capacity and allied health professional support seven days a week, and develop dedicated minor injuries units.