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Brave hearts are needed or lives will be in danger

With massive cuts to the health budget looming, heart patients and others will pay a heavy price if decision-makers do not take brave and immediate steps to modernise our Health Service.

With nearly 50 years' experience and more than £1m invested in local heart services in recent years, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) Northern Ireland knows the day-to-day reality on the ground.

We know quick fixes won't work. We urge the Northern Ireland Executive to refocus the debate on what really matters - investing in a modern Health Service that will meet the needs of patients.

Instead of random cuts to frontline health services, the Executive needs to provide a more radical, innovative and long term solution.

We believe any efforts to reduce our health spend should focus on strategic improvements with priority given to frontline patient care.

We are well aware of the financial pressures facing the Executive to manage the current deficit.

However, the burden of heart disease is only set to increase - recent numbers of people with angina and coronary heart disease (CHD) in Northern Ireland will go up from over 75,000 in 2007 to nearly 100,000 in 2020.

With patient-need set to increase we cannot make cuts which will have an impact on crucial frontline services for people with heart disease and compromise care work.

This will have severe consequences for the provision of health services in the future, in which lives could be lost as a result.

The proposed cuts could impact on crucial services such as the provision of specialist heart nurses, investment in community resuscitation and cardiac rehabilitation. Any attempt to save money in the short term by abandoning services such as these could have a knock-on effect on the ability of the Health Service to cope with demand in the future.

In the worst-case scenario, we will see waiting lists and times lengthen, returning our Health Service to times when heart patients were waiting two years or more for treatment.

Investment in cardiac services over the past five years has helped reduce heart disease and mortality rates, but if this positive trend is to continue, local politicians need to protect key cardiac services that prevent heart disease as well as aid recovery.

A 2009 report, Access to Cardiac Care in the UK, outlined the need for sustained investment in the local Health Service if the necessary levels of cardiac interventions are to be maintained.

As a member of the Long Term Conditions Alliance Northern Ireland (LTCANI) - an umbrella body representing more than 500,000 people with long-term conditions - we support the call for the creation of a long-term conditions strategy.

Such a strategy has the potential to modernise services and ensure the money invested is spent efficiently on improving care and empowering the patient to manage their own illness better.

On behalf of heart patients and their families across the country, BHF Northern Ireland calls on the Executive to protect our Health Service.

We have a limited window of opportunity to make a difference, we shouldn't waste it.

To withdraw vital funding at this stage will interrupt - even reverse - the good progress in services for heart patients in Northern Ireland in recent years and put thousands of lives at risk.

Marjory Burns is director of British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland