Leading article

Change to emergency departments must be carefully managed

While the peak of coronavirus has passed and lockdown restrictions largely relaxed, the health service is planning for a second wave which could hit in the autumn.

Obviously, everyone will be hoping we do not see a surge similar to that which struck Northern Ireland in the past few months, leading to hundreds of deaths.

But the authorities have to prepare for the worst so it is absolutely essential that work is taking place now so our health and social care system can cope if we experience a sharp increase in cases.

The reconfiguration of hospitals and GP services that was quickly and efficiently organised in March ensured we were able to deal with the immediate impact of Covid-19 but as a strategy it was clearly not sustainable in the longer term.

We need a health service that can treat the full range of patients not only in a timely manner but also as safely as possible in a time of pandemic.

As the Irish News revealed last month, the Department of Health is looking at radical changes to how we access accident and emergency units, with patients only being received by ambulance or a doctor referral.

Further details on these draft plans have now emerged with target dates for the creation of vital services, including urgent care centres and a regional triage system that would be available on a 24/7 basis.

It anticipates that as early as next month the north's five biggest hospital emergency departments may not be accepting walk-in patients.

While the most seriously ill will be taken to A&E, around two-thirds of patients will instead be seen in new urgent care centres, ideally located close to casualty in case transfer is needed.

There is no doubt these proposals would represent a huge change for people used to being able to turn up at emergency departments at any time of the day or night.

However, it has to be acknowledged that the current arrangements often lead to unacceptable waiting times while crowded units pose a major issue in terms of coronavirus spread.

There is a pressing need for reform but it must be carefully managed with complete transparency from the Department of Health and a willingness to listen to concerns.

It is recognised that we need to prepare and adapt but it is a process that must be done properly.

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Leading article