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Lisa Smyth

If health funding isn't found, Northern Ireland patients and staff suffer most

Lisa Smyth


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The Health Minister Robin Swann said the sector would require extra funding of £661m next year.

The Health Minister Robin Swann said the sector would require extra funding of £661m next year.

PA Archive/PA Images

The Health Minister Robin Swann said the sector would require extra funding of £661m next year.

Dr Tom Black from the British Medication Association (BMA) has told politicians that Northern Ireland will need an additional 1,000 consultants by 2033.

The health service is coming under increasing pressure and is already struggling to cope with demand.

People are living longer with multiple medical conditions, yet health officials have failed to plan and invest in a workforce to cater for the needs of the population.

We have seen in the past the issues that arise when there are not enough doctors to fill hospital rotas - clinics are cancelled and services have shut completely.

One of the most high-profile casualties of the shortage of senior doctors was the emergency department at Belfast City Hospital.

The unit closed its doors in November 2011 and, despite the move being described as temporary at the time, it has never reopened.

More recently, patients with potentially life-threatening neurological conditions have endured waits of several years because of a lack of specialists working in Northern Ireland.

It is clear that patients are suffering as a result of the growing problem. However, it is also impacting on the medical profession.

It is clear that something needs to be done - and quickly before the situation spirals out of control.

Northern Ireland trains in the region of 250 doctors a year.

A Department of Health-commissioned report released last year said we need to train 400 doctors a year, but that an additional 100 doctor training places should be made available immediately.

It takes five years at medical school to become a doctor, it then takes a further five to nine years to qualify as a consultant or surgeon, so the clock to increase training places is ticking.

The BMA has said the answer to the problem lies in the creation of a medical school at Ulster University's Magee campus in Londonderry.

Not only will a medical school in Derry increase the medical workforce in Northern Ireland, it will encourage more doctors to work in the north west, where the workforce shortage is particularly acute. Unfortunately, the absence of a health minister and Executive has seriously hindered its progress.

Since taking up the top post, Robin Swann has said the project is one of his department's priorities.

Of course, he has a long list of priorities, including tackling waiting lists, addressing mental health services and resolving the issues facing nursing in Northern Ireland. Every one of his priorities will require significant funding, and the creation of a new medical school is no exception.

He has already warned he needs £492m in the upcoming budget just for the health service to stand still. The fact is, however, that if the funding is not found to open a new medical school, patients and staff will suffer.

In fact, it isn't too extreme to predict a collapse of the NHS.

I asked Dr Black last night if he is optimistic that the funding for the medical school will be found.

His response?

"It has to and the reason why I'm so confident of that is there is no alternative," he said.

So, the case for the medical school has been made - we will wait to see whether the Treasury and Department of Finance listen.

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