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Editorial: Tough decisions needed on our healthcare system

The fundamental difficulties facing our health service have been amply demonstrated over the past week or so by a series of profound problems that underline the need for urgent reform.

We have seen the severe challenges facing emergency departments placed into sharp focus, with Antrim Area Hospital declaring a major incident and closing to new admissions because conditions had become unsafe.

Unfortunately, it was not the only hospital experiencing serious pressures with the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald and Altnagelvin in Derry reporting difficulties.

Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital appealed on social media for nurses to help and urged families to take relatives fit for discharge home.

During this period, it emerged that a woman in her seventies sadly died on a trolley at the RVH while waiting to be admitted.

The immense strain on our emergency departments is unfortunately a familiar refrain.

But we also know that the challenges facing our health service go well beyond A&E.

This was sharply illustrated over the past few days in Co Fermanagh, where the Western Trust announced it was temporarily withdrawing emergency general surgery from the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) following the resignation of a consultant and the failure to recruit another surgeon, despite numerous attempts.

We are told this decision was taken for public safety reasons and the trust has moved to reassure the local community, which is understandably alarmed at this development, with political representatives also voicing concerns.

However, the head of the Royal College of Surgeons in Northern Ireland, Professor Mark Taylor, said we have got to 'dial down the noise to suggest fear to the people of Fermanagh.'

Medical professionals have stressed that what is important is that patients receive the best possible care even though that may require a trip to another hospital.

This is in line with various reports over the years which have recommended reducing the number of acute hospitals and transforming the delivery of services across Northern Ireland.

What we do know is that the current set up simply isn't working. We are seeing services strained at all levels, including in primary care with concerns around the sustainability of too many GP practices.

We need to see transformation of our healthcare system but this should be done in an organised, managed and sensitive manner which properly explains why change is necessary.

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