Increasing green shoots of recovery demonstrate an improved health service is deliverable - Swann

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Increasing green shoots of recovery demonstrate an improved health service is deliverable - Swann

In an eve of poll message Ulster Unionist Minister of Health Robin Swann has said that whilst the health service remains under immense pressure, there are increasingly some green shoots appearing that demonstrate an improved health service is deliverable.

Robin Swann said:

“Our health service was in a dire situation long before the pandemic. Whilst the problems were exacerbated by Covid-19, they weren’t caused by it. Throughout the decade that had preceded it key staffing posts were allowed to go unfilled, student training places fell far back from what was required, some services were starved of investment and waiting lists were allowed to spiral with far too many people waiting far too long for treatment.

“My very first priority as Minister was to stabilise the workforce. On my third day in office I secured a deal that ended the previous industrial action, restored pay parity and delivered the largest ever increase to the workforce. We’re now training 1,335 nurses & midwives and since then I’ve also delivered increases to a whole range of the workforce such as more GP and AHP training places, as well as significantly growing the incoming intake to the Northern Ireland Medical Foundation Programme.                                                                                                               

“Last June I published my 5-year Elective Care Framework. It set out in detail 55 immediate, medium term and longer term proposals for how I wanted to systematically tackle the backlog of patients on waiting lists and how services needed to be transformed to allow us to meet the population’s demands in future.  Despite the ongoing pressure of the pandemic, 9 of those 55 actions have already been completed. Another 45 are broadly on track with only one issue - relating to cross sector pharmacist led medicines optimisation reviews - having some concerns about immediate deliverability.

“I recognised very early on that the only way we are ever going to sustainably get on top of the appalling waiting times, is to work with staff to deliver greater levels of in-house elective care activity. That’s why I’ve already introduced new enhanced rates of pay for targeted shifts and priority activities.

“Over the last number of months more than 6,500 patients have been assessed or treated at mega clinics – usually on a Saturday – where staff are brought together to see or treat a large number of patients quickly.

“Staff and patients are both showing a clear willingness to travel in return for improved and more timely treatment. The regional day procedure centre I established in the Lagan Valley Hospital in 2020 – the first centre of its type here – has been successfully treating patients from right across Northern Ireland.

“As a direct result of a new cataract waiting times initiative I asked to be developed at the end of last year, the number of people waiting for cataract surgery is 40% lower than it was 12 months ago and it’s 19% lower now than it was before the pandemic. Whilst cataract surgery mightn’t be life or death, the impact in terms of improved quality of life is huge. The number of people waiting over 52 weeks for the procedure has also reduced by 75% in the last year alone and in the coming weeks for the first time in a very long time there will likely be no one waiting longer than 52 weeks.

“There are 18,000 fewer people on a diagnostic service waiting list now than there were when I took office in early 2020. The proportion of patients having to wait over 26 weeks has also fallen significantly in the same timeframe, down by almost a third. The ongoing rollout of high-volume diagnostic clinics will further help reduce the overall numbers waiting.

“A key element of increasing HSC capacity will be a move to a 7-day working week. For too long key elements of the local hospital infrastructure were going unutilised over the weekend. Between working with staff and entering into arrangements with the independent sector for the benefit of HSC patients, more and more of our theatres are now operating out of hours. This is only an example of the system overall moving to a 7-day week service.

“Thrombectomy, a key procedure in response to some people who have suffered with stroke, has also moved from a weekday service only to a 7-day service. There are many people across Northern Ireland alive and well today who would otherwise not have benefited from this life changing treatment. 

“I don’t want to mislead anyone – the challenges remain immense and until all the increases in staffing that I’ve announced are fully realised the pressures on those existing staff will be huge. Whilst waiting times in some areas have improved over the last two years, as a result of the pandemic, like in health systems across these islands, they’ve grown in others.

“That is why my overarching priority has always been to stabilise the workforce and the system, to slow the increase in waiting times and then ultimately reverse them. That has started happening in a number of important specialities but it will take time, investment, and just as importantly, the right amount of determination and drive.

“Being Northern Ireland’s Minister of Health has been the greatest honour of my political life.

“The Ulster Unionist Party took the health portfolio in 2020 when all others passed it by. As some clear green shoots of recovery start to materialise, it’s essential that we continue to rebuild our Health Service and transform services so that they deliver the type of health service that our patients and staff so greatly deserve. Good progress is already being made, but with more votes for Ulster Unionist Party candidates across Northern Ireland, we can finish the job.”