City Hospital A&E department could close permanently
Belfast City Hospital's emergency department could close permanently under proposals being considered by the health minister.
The Royal and Mater's A&E units would remain open supported by direct access to specialist services at the City, Edwin Poots added. He has ordered a consultation on the changes to emergency services in Belfast.
The City's unit has been temporarily closed since 2011 because of a shortage of doctors.
Mr Poots said: "My department has obtained assurances from both the trust and the HSC (Health and Social Care) Board, as the commissioner of these services, that the preferred option will provide an emergency department service in Belfast that is safe and sustainable and that it will deliver high-quality care."
Health unions in the past have opposed plans to close an emergency department in Belfast but senior health officials maintained the move could create a more efficient health service.
A shortage of middle-grade doctors in emergency departments in Northern Ireland, part of a UK-wide trend, prompted the decision to temporarily close the City unit in November 2011, the Belfast Trust has said.
Now a 13-week Northern Ireland-wide consultation by the Health and Social Care Board will be run on its permanent shut down, the minister told the Assembly in a written statement.
Mr Poots said the preferred option in the consultation document was that there should be two emergency departments in Belfast, at the Royal and the Mater, supported by direct access, via GPs, to a range of specialist services at Belfast City Hospital.
"This preferred option has been identified following detailed consideration of the relevant issues addressed in the document. Following public consultation, if I decide to adopt the preferred option, this change will result in the permanent closure of the emergency department in Belfast City Hospital," he said.
In the past the trust has argued that accident and emergency would have to involve the Royal because it is Northern Ireland's regional trauma centre and has intensive care provision, cardiac surgery, neurosurgery, fracture clinic and also specialises in the treatment of stroke patients.
The organisation's director of acute services Dr Patricia Donnelly recently said it was well understood that Belfast City Hospital had become known as a specialist centre for cancer, oncology, renal and urology provision.
The decision to temporarily close the City department was taken without public consultation because the shortage of middle-grade doctors in emergency departments meant administrators had to act quickly, Dr Donnelly said.
Mr Poots said patients needed to access services quickly without going through emergency departments.
"The managers and clinicians in Belfast Trust and all the other affected organisations have worked to make the temporary change, introduced in November 2011, effective," he said.
"From the evidence of how the temporary change has been delivered by the trust over the past 15 months I believe looking forward that we can have confidence that the model of care proposed in the preferred option is both safe and sustainable."
The consultation will run until May 10.