Health Minister announces general surgery review in Northern Ireland to provide 'better, safer' care

The Mater Hospital in Belfast has been earmarked as the first Elective Overnight Stay Centre. Credit: UTV

The health minister has published a review of general surgery in Northern Ireland in a move that should, according to Robin Swann, help provide "better, safer and more consistent care" for everyone in Northern Ireland.

The health minister's review sets out standards that hospitals will be required to meet to continue providing emergency and planned (elective) general surgery.

It outlines a new future for general surgery, which will involve changes to the current pattern of services.

This will include establishing Elective Overnight Stay Centres for planned procedures for high volume, intermediate complexity cases where at least one night in hospital is required. The Mater Hospital in Belfast is earmarked as the first of these new centres. Further locations will be identified in line with the wider design plan for the hospital system. The review emphasises the pressing need for change, given current issues of sustainability and keeping pace with the development of the specialty. There have been major changes in general surgery over the last two decades with surgeons now more sub-specialised and focused on specific areas such as colorectal surgery, upper gastrointestinal surgery and other services. This means larger staffing teams are required, which can lead to recruitment issues and an increased reliance on locum cover.

In addition, access to interventional radiology and endoscopy facilities is not consistent across the hospital network. Across Northern Ireland, there is wide variation in performance across surgical specialties both with regard to time spent in hospital and the levels of surgery carried out as daycase. A further challenge involves cancellation of planned general surgery procedures due to emergency surgery cases requiring staff and theatre space.

The Department of Health says this can be addressed by greater separation of elective and emergency surgery provision. Launching the Review of General Surgery document, the Health Minister said: “I very much welcome the development of these standards for emergency and elective general surgery. “They will be used to drive decisions on the reshaping of services and will help inform the wider design plan initiative which I recently announced for our hospital network. “The Review of General Surgery has been clinically led and I am very grateful to the review’s chair Professor Mark Taylor and colleagues for this vitally important work. “The case for reshaping general surgery services is unanswerable. As this report underlines, we are not currently providing the best possible care for all our patients.

"Whilst our surgeons and wider multi-disciplinary teams do outstanding work, current arrangements do them a disservice. “We must press ahead with changes to ensure for patients, wherever they live in Northern Ireland.” Professor Mark Taylor, the review chair, is a Consultant in General and Hepatobiliary Surgery. He stated: “I believe this Review will make an important contribution to the transformation of our health service.

"I am very pleased to have been involved in this work and I would like to express my sincere thanks to the many individuals who have contributed to it.” Professor Taylor continued: “The changing nature of surgical speciality means delivering emergency general surgery across multiple smaller sites with a lower patient turnover is becoming increasingly difficult in terms of rotas, staff recruitment and retention, skill mix, and maintaining quality care. “If we don’t secure change in a planned way, it will happen anyway in an unplanned and piecemeal fashion as services in a number of locations increasingly struggle to keep going.”

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