The move announced by Robin Swann will represent an important step towards reconfiguring the province’s under-pressure health service.
The Stormont executive has previously backed reform plans that include a restructuring of the hospital network, with a focus on creating centers to deliver key specialties.
Northern Ireland currently has the longest hospital waiting lists in the UK and experts have warned that the current structures are not sustainable.
Mr. Swann insisted that the reform was not about closing hospitals, but rather about changing the services provided by each.
Yesterday morning, the Minister informed his fellow MPs for Stormont of his intention to draw up a restructuring plan. It will be open for public consultation in the fall.
The power-sharing deadlock at Stormont means Mr Swann remains a minister but cannot make any major policy decisions. It is understood that the Minister is satisfied that the commissioning of the plan is in line with the policy already established by the extended executive of Stormont.
Swann said the plan would be developed with advice and input from a new Health and Social Care Improvement and Transformation Advisory Council, which will be made up of clinicians and health service managers.
“We need to change and reform our way of providing services in order to provide a better health service,” said the minister.
“Without change, we will simply condemn patients and staff to more of the same.
“Health reform does not mean closing or downgrading a single hospital.”
Mr Swann’s meeting with Assembly colleagues included a discussion of the current pressures facing the health service, including efforts to tackle spiraling waiting lists.
He said there was a need to change the way some services were delivered.
“And yes, that will involve reorganizing the way certain services are delivered, to create more centers of excellence that can deliver the quality and breadth of services that people need,” he added.
“The design plan will build on clinic-led service reviews, public consultations and the strategies already in place – our building blocks for the future.
“The debates on the reform of our health service have often been limited to discussions. It’s a story we know only too well. This is an opportunity to relaunch this debate, to move it forward and to focus people’s minds.
“It’s time to change the script. I also believe that our health service personnel, who have given so much during the pandemic, and our citizens who have suffered so much, need to know that there is a solution to make things better and that we have a plan and a vision for there.
“Of course it will take time, it will take funding, it will take prioritization, but we need to have this final design plan that we can all work on.”
In a written statement, Mr Swann also warned of serious budget problems ahead. “When we factor in inflationary pressures and the need for future wage rewards, we have an estimated shortfall of £550m in 2022/23.”
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