There has been a call to reinstate services at Daisy Hill Hospital as soon as possible, following a decision that emergency general surgery is to be transferred to Craigavon Area Hospital.
This includes a range of operations, including appendectomy and surgery on patients with a perforated gall bladder or strangulated hernia.
The changes were revealed at a meeting of the Southern Trust board today (Thursday), with medical chiefs saying the measures will improve patient outcomes and ensure the long-term future of surgical services in the trust’s three hospitals.
However, Sinn Féin MLA for Newry and Armagh Liz Kimmins said Daisy Hill is the only hospital between Drogheda and Portadown, and “it is absolutely essential that it is in a position to serve this wide geographical area”.
SDLP MLA for the area Justin McNulty described it as a “downgrading of the Emergency Department at Daisy Hill … and by extension a downgrading of Daisy Hill”.
He said it would have major implications for South Armagh, South Down and Newry.
The trust announcement comes after one of only two general surgeons working on the Daisy Hill site resigned and is due to leave their post at the end of next month.
It has also prompted concerns over the future of A&E at the Newry hospital.
General colorectal surgeon Kevin McElvanna said there has been a series of issues that need to be addressed.
“We’re running a sub-optimal service across two sites, with big issues for recruitment, retention and training of staff. There’s been a revolving door of surgeons, particularly on the Daisy Hill site for a long number of years,” he said.
“There are issues for quality of care here and patient safety.”
MLA Ms Kimmins said: “I and my Sinn Féin colleagues have met with the trust Chief Executive and his senior management team on a number of occasions where they have outlined the issues they are having with staffing levels, and particularly with the recruitment of surgical staff.
“This has consequently impacted on the ability to provide emergency surgery safely at Daisy Hill as they are currently operating with one consultant out of the required six.
“This is clearly untenable and we will continue to engage with the trust and the Health Minister to ensure all possibilities are being explored so that this is a strictly temporary measure in the interests of the health and safety of all patients and staff.”
Newry & Armagh DUP MLA William Irwin has asked the Health Minister to outline a plan for the reinstatement of Emergency Surgery at Daisy Hill hospital.
Mr Irwin said that whilst the safety of patients was the highest priority in any health care setting, it could not be ignored that concerns are then heightened amongst the public for the future of other associated services.
He said: “This is a concerning situation and of course the safety of patients is the utmost priority and everyone recognises this. I am however mindful that the longer emergency surgery is not being carried out at the site, then the greater the risk to other associated services.
“It is easy to see how community concerns over these associated services and the provision of accessible services at Daisy Hill are heightened for people. We have in the past witnessed these situations develop where services are subject to disruption in various circumstances and then there are question marks placed above them, this has the effect of unsettling people.
“I want to see the Consultant vacancies filled as quickly as possible and the service restored to full capacity, that must be a priority for the Health Minister and I have asked him to swiftly outline his plans in this regard.”
He concluded: “My party will provide whatever support is required to assist in restoring the situation to normality and providing long-term stability for Daisy Hill. The hospital is a vital resource serving a large geographical area and it is important that services are retained and resourced appropriately.”
Ulster Unionist Councillor, David Taylor, commented: “The proposal by Southern Health & Social Care Trust to transfer emergency surgery provision from Daisy Hill Hospital to Craigavon Area Hospital is disappointing.
“I acknowledge the challenges outlined in terms of the availability of Consultant General Surgeons within the Trust area at this time. I am concerned however, as will many be across the community, that the Trust has felt it necessary to remove emergency surgery provision from Daisy Hill Hospital.
“I am engaging with the Health Minister to ensure that Daisy Hill Hospital is fully maximised as a facility both for local patients and for the benefit of the wider region. I know from my conversations with Robin Swann since he became Health Minister that he sees Daisy Hill as a major asset in the hospital estate. I have stressed to him, the importance of attracting staff to Daisy Hill to ensure that service provision at the Hospital is retained and enhanced.
“I’ve also asked the Trust to explore the transfer of more elective surgery to Daisy Hill Hospital as a means of fully utilising the capacity of beds and staff at the Hospital.
“There must be a concerted effort by Senior Trust officials and the Department of Health to achieve an increased capacity of Consultant General Surgeons in the Trust area. This is absolutely vital to ensure that emergency surgery service provision is sustained in the long term at Hospital sites across the Southern Trust area including at Daisy Hill Hospital.”
A spokesperson for the Southern Health and Social Care Trust said that from Monday, February 28, all emergency surgical patients requiring inpatient assessment will be admitted to Craigavon Area Hospital “until a full consultation on a sustainable future service model has been completed with outcomes agreed”.
She added: “There will be no change to the Emergency Department at Daisy Hill which will continue to operate as usual on a 24/7 basis.
“Despite repeated recruitment advertisements, from the end of February, Daisy Hill will have one permanent Consultant General Surgeon out of six funded posts and Craigavon will have eight out of nine.
“The consolidation of emergency surgery to one site will allow the team to maintain the safety of the service for all Southern Trust patients whilst a longer term best-practice model is developed to improve both emergency and elective general surgery.”
Director of Acute Services, Melanie McClements said: “I want to assure local people that Daisy Hill remains an essential part of the Southern Trust hospital network.
“We ask for public support and understanding as we continue to work through the challenges to develop a solution that meets the future needs of our population.”
The trust said a formal project structure is now being established to develop longer term proposals for public consultation on elective and general surgery across the Southern Trust.