Health service reform: New action plan is far from ‘a very clear vision' for future care

First Minister, Arlene Foster, deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, Health Minister, Michelle O'Neill and Professor, Rafael Bengoa pictured following the publication of an expert medical report into the healthcare system in Northern Ireland. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/ Press Eye
Gareth McKeown

THOSE expecting a radical and immediate overhaul of a health service in crisis will have been left disappointed by the contents of the eagerly anticipated action plan from the Health Minister.

The 10-year 'roadmap' to transform the health and social care system in the north, based on recommendations from an expert panel, appears at first look a road fraught with uncertainty and without clear signage of a final destination.

The minister has said the current health and social care system is at "breaking point", but in the 80 plus page expert report and her own 10-year plan the response appears to be all mouth and no trousers.

"A very clear vision" it is not, with both reports falling down in the detail. It signifies a radical overhaul of the health system in Northern Ireland, but provides little in terms of how this will be achieved.

The minister has hailed the new plan as a "fresh start", but without clear targets, timeframes for implementation and comprehensive costs there is no guarantee the Bengoa report will be any more successful at creating change than its predecessors.

A concern made all the more worrying given the fact that if the NHS continues on its current trajectory, health will take up 90 percent of the Stormont budget by 2026.

For the person in west Tyrone waiting an average 45.7 weeks for a knee replacement operation the 10-year plan will not ensure their surgery is brought forward with haste, nor does it deal with the immediate problem of 100,000 people waiting over 18 weeks for an outpatient appointment.

A 'comprehensive approach for addressing waiting lists' will be in place by January 2017, but affirmative action is needed now to tackle this growing problem.

There are grounds for optimism through a more open engagement process with staff, short-term investment in GP services, enhanced nurse training programmes and further support for looked after children, but as the minister has rightly said "meaningful change does not happen overnight".

The overriding concern is whether it will happen at all.

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