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Wednesday, 16 October, 2002, 15:14 GMT 16:14 UK
Pressing health decisions await new minister

The most pressing matter in the new Northern Ireland health minister, Des Browne's, in-tray is local hospitals.

Mr Browne, parliamentary undersecretary of state in the Northern Ireland Office, took on the portfolio for health at midnight on Monday following the suspension of the assembly over the current political crisis.

He will have to juggle the pressing needs of the province's stretched health service with the demands of his other responsibilities for the Department of Social Development and for Equality, Human Rights and Community Relations.

For the last six years, there has been a plan to strip life-saving services from many hospitals and centralise expertise in six key centres, while maintaining some services at three or four other hospitals.

Important decisions are pending on new specialist maternity centre
Important decisions are pending on new specialist maternity centre

Former health minister Bairbre de Brun produced yet another consultation document in the Summer which suggested this template once again.

It would mean acute services being stripped from six hospitals - the Mater in Belfast, Lagan Valley in Lisburn, Whiteabbey in Newtownabbey, the Mid-Ulster in Magherafelt and the Tyrone County in Omagh.

The temporary closure of South Tyrone Hospital in Dungannon would also become permanent.

The Downe in Downpatrick would lose some services but keep its 24 hour accident and emergency department.

Exactly what would be left in each hospital is undecided but it's likely all would offer diagnostic tests, run out patient clinics and bring in patients for day procedures.

Two are also to have a maternity unit run by midwives and two would carry out non-emergency surgical operations.

Controversial

Des Browne is likely to feel that such controversial local decisions should only be decided by a devolved Assembly.

Des Browne has tough choices to make
Des Browne has tough choices to make
But hospitals are not the only matter he has to decide on.

Former Northern Ireland first minister David Trimble had set up a review of public administration.

This included the four health boards. For many years, it has been obvious the days of the boards are numbered.

They are doomed - the only question is when will they go and what will replace them? Des Browne is again likely to be reluctant to take a decision.

Maternity unit

And what about the plan to build a new maternity unit in the middle of Belfast?

It is to serve women from that area - and also to run a regional speciality service for mothers and babies from across the province who get into difficulty and need expert help.

There is no decision on whether the new unit should be built at the Royal Victorial Hospital in west Belfast or at the City hospital in the south of the city.

And it is unlikely a direct rule minister will want to grasp that nettle.

Finally, Local Health and Social Care groups covering all of Northern Ireland were set up six months ago.

So far, family doctors have not taken their seats on them. Will Des Browne be able to change the format of these groups enough to entice the GPs on board?

See also:

15 Oct 02 | N Ireland
12 Jun 02 | N Ireland
07 Mar 02 | N Ireland
24 Sep 01 | N Ireland
Internet links:


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