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Health service in need of urgent reform

The failure to reach a deal on restoring the devolved institutions is profoundly disappointing for those hoping to see progress on some of the major issues affecting everyday life in Northern Ireland.

Chief among them is the state of our health service which has been under severe pressure for a number of years and which is in need of an overhaul.

It is just over a year since the publication of the Bengoa Report, a far-reaching document aimed at improving services and reducing waiting lists for treatment.

It was regarded as a blueprint for preparing our health service for the demands of an ageing population and given the difficulties already being experienced, it was a document that in many ways needed to be put into action as a matter of urgency.

With no minister in place to drive forward reform it is not clear when we will see the report's recommendations fully implemented.

There is no doubt that the health system in the north needs immediate attention.

Not only are the waiting times for surgery at intolerable levels but a shortage of doctors, nurses and other staff is having a severe effect on the delivery of services.

Difficulties in recruiting permanent staff means that hospitals are turning to private employment agencies to help plug gaps, often at a high cost.

This week the Irish News revealed that the northern trust has paid more than £1 million in the past year to employ three locum consultants at the Causeway hospital emergency department.

The trust's medical director, Dr Seamus O'Reilly, has expressed concern at the cost of locum staff but also makes the point that a lack of regional workforce planning has contributed to the crisis.

The Department of Health is considering a cap on agency rates but has warned this could lead to the `closure of facilities'.

However, it is plain the situation cannot continue as it is and a strategic approach to workplace planning is needed.

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