THE local health service will reach ‘crisis point’ within a few years unless major changes are implemented, the deputy chief executive of the Western Trust has warned.
According to Kieran Downey, the biggest challenges facing the Trust include staffing recruitment issues and changing demographics, particularly the ageing population.
The Killyclogher man has been tasked with heading up the Trust’s largest-ever public engagement process, known as the ‘Pathfinder’ initiative, which is examining what needs to happen to ensure that the health needs of the local community will be properly met in the future.
Speaking to the Ulster Herald recently, Mr Downey said, “Right now, our services are creaking but they’re not at the point of crisis. But unless we intervene and introduce some change and innovation into our system, in a few years’ time, they will be at the point of crisis and then it becomes too late to fix things.”
Mr Downey dismissed any fears over the future of the Trust’s two hospitals in Fermanagh and west Tyrone, the South West Acute Hospital and Omagh Hospital, but said that, in the future, they would need to operate as part of a wider network of hospitals, including those across the border.
The deputy chief executive said the Trust’s plans had received the backing of all the North’s political parties.
He said, “They know this is the right thing to do. Certainly, political inertia doesn’t help any situation, but I can’t do anything about that. All I can do is begin to see what we can do differently.”
The father-of-two, who still lives locally, will be stepping away from his career in social work for the next 18 months in order to lead the ‘Pathfinder’ team.
Funding for the process has been secured from the Department of Health’s transformation fund.
Over the next two months, Mr Downey and his team are going to be involved in a period of “active community engagement” in towns and villages across the area. Eventually, a business case will be developed along with an implementation plan.
Describing the role as an “exciting opportunity”, Mr Downey said, “I’m going to need these services in years to come and my family will.
“My ambition is to have the best possible, sustainable health and social care services that we could have in this area.”
But there are a number of major challenges facing the Trust, not least the ageing population.
Mr Downey said that, currently, 25 per-cent of the in-patients at the South West Acute Hospital, outside Enniskillen, are over 85 years old.
He also said that increasing numbers of people were living with “quite significant” illnesses and choosing to stay in their own homes for longer.
“We need to look at how we are going to be able to sustain that,” he said.
The deputy chief executive said that the seminal moment for the Trust came during the summer when they were dealing with a workforce issue in the obstetrics department at the South West Acute Hospital.
He said, “Whilst we got it fixed and the service is running well again we did take a pause afterwards and say unless we do something different we are going to be continually fixing things. Sometimes it was about patching over things until the next crisis happened.”
Recruiting and retaining staff in Fermanagh and West Tyrone also remains a “big issue” for the Trust, including in social care and domiciliary care.
“More and more people tell us they want to live in their own home. But we don’t have the workforce in parts of the Trust to do it,” Mr Downey said.
The Trust is planning to work with local schools more closely in a bid to make these careers more attractive.
Mr Downey said that the “worst possible outcome” would be to do nothing.
“I think it would be irresponsible to put our heads in the sand, particularly when we know the demography and are experiencing the challenges we are facing,” he said.