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Health minister's announcement on public inquiries welcome

Health minister Robin Swann has moved with remarkable speed to order a public inquiry after serious concerns were raised about the clinical practice of Craigavon Area Hospital-based consultant urologist Aidan O'Brien, who retired earlier this year.

It was only last month that this newspaper's health correspondent revealed that a major patient recall was to take place after a review into the clinician's work at the Southern trust, with the minister revealing yesterday that hundreds of families have been contacted.

In a statement to the assembly, Mr Swann said on July 31 the trust reported concerns to the department of health regarding treatment delays for some surgery patients under the consultant's care.

After a review of more than 1,000 patients, nine have so far been identified as meeting the threshold for a serious adverse incident review.

This is plainly a profoundly worrying time for patients and their families and the minister is to be commended for acting quickly to establish a public inquiry.

In a further unexpected move, he also announced that the current independent inquiry into neurologist Dr Michael Watt, who was at the centre of the biggest patient recall in Northern Ireland, has been upgraded to a public inquiry, which will have the power to compel witnesses to give evidence.

The establishment of a public inquiry also sends out a strong message that there is an overriding determination to uncover the full truth about matters that directly relate to the care and treatment of patients.

Although the decisions disclosed yesterday are welcome, they are also highly unusual as the health authorities here have shown a marked reluctance to set up public inquiries, which can be far-reaching in terms of their findings.

Indeed, the decision to establish such an inquiry into the scandal at Muckamore Abbey Hospital only occurred following intense and prolonged pressure by the families of patients amid shocking allegations of abuse and ill-treatment at the Co Antrim facility.

The fact that the health service in Northern Ireland is now facing three public inquiries at one time inevitably raises wider questions about oversight and governance in our healthcare system.

It is absolutely vital we discover what has gone wrong and why, but also to ensure that any problems in our system are identified and addressed at an early stage.

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