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Urgent overhaul of NI stroke service required

Strokes account for almost 3,000 hospital admissions to Northern Ireland hospitals each year

HEALTH chiefs are to launch a major consultation to overhaul stroke services in Northern Ireland which experts say fall "well below" standards in Britain.

The move comes as the north's leading stroke specialist warns of the need to urgently introduce a revolutionary new treatment 'round the clock'.

The service is currently only available between 8.30am and 5pm on weekdays in Belfast's Royal Victoria hospital.

Writing in today's Irish News, Dr Ivan Wiggam said the procedure, which involves physically removing a brain clot and must be performed shortly after a victim has suffered a stroke, can have "dramatic" results.

The highly-respected medic said timing was critical in carrying out the "thrombectomy", the results of which were "the most gratifying things I have experienced in over 25 years as a doctor".

Today's 13-week exercise, described as a "pre-consultation", is being carried out by the Health and Social Care Board and will allow staff, survivors, charities and carers to put forward their views on how existing care can be reformed.

Significantly, Board chiefs state any changes will be subject to "available resources" - in a direct reference to the collapse of the Assembly and absence of any budget.

They hope the pre-consultation period will pave the way for a full consultation and have encouraged the public to get involved.

While the number of deaths from stroke have declined over the past 20 years - there are still around 1,000 each year.

The condition is the largest biggest cause of severe acquired brain damage and disability in adults.

There are almost 3,000 stroke-related admissions to hospital.

In a statement, the Board said that while there had been some improvement in drug therapies and specialist treatment, they still fell short of what is required.

"Independent reports have highlighted that our services nonetheless fall below national standards and there is considerable scope for improvement," a spokesman said.

"Currently only around half of stroke patients in Northern Ireland are admitted to a stroke unit following assessment in an emergency department.

"A number of key services to help prevent, treat and provide specialist aftercare are not consistently available on a seven day basis while stroke survivors have stressed that they find it difficult to access continued support after they leave hospital."

Dr Brid Farrell, a consultant in Public Health Medicine from the Public Health Agency, and member of the "Reshaping Stroke Services Group" said they had developed seven proposals to reshape services.

The planned shake-up will involve a reduction of smaller sites and a concentration of expertise in bigger hosptials.

"No decisions have been taken, and we want to ensure there is broad consensus for the key proposals before we start to look in more detail at how and where services will be provided from in the future," Dr Farren said.

"It is vital we have the specialist staff in place on a 24/7 basis and can provide timely access to the very latest treatments and care across the whole spectrum of stroke services to give patients the best possible chance wherever they are in Northern Ireland."

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