The move announced by Robin Swann will represent a significant step toward 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 hubs to deliver key specialisms.
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 has insisted reform is not about closing hospitals, rather changing what services each provides.
The minister briefed fellow Stormont MLAs yesterday morning about his intention to develop a restructuring plan. It will be opened for public consultation in the autumn.
The power-sharing impasse at Stormont means Mr Swann remains a minister but cannot take any major policy decisions. It is understood the minister is content that commissioning the plan is in line with policy already set by the wider Stormont Executive.
Mr Swann said the plan would be developed with advice and input from a new Health and Social Care Improvement and Transformation Advisory Board, which will be made up of clinicians and health service managers.
“We need to change and reform how we provide services in order to deliver a better health service,” said the minister.
“Without change, we will simply be condemning 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 discussion on the current pressures facing the health service, including efforts to tackle spiralling waiting lists.
He said there was a need to change how some services were delivered.
“And yes, that will include reorganising how some services are provided, to create more centres of excellence able to deliver the quality and scale of services people need,” he added.
“The design plan will build on clinically led service reviews, public consultations and the strategies already in place – our building blocks for the future.
“Debates about reforming our health service have often amounted to little more than talk. It is a story we know only too well. This is an opportunity to reset that debate, to move it on and to concentrate minds.
“It’s time to change the script. I also believe that our health service staff, who have given so much during the pandemic, and our citizens who have suffered so much, need to know that there is a solution that things will get better and we have a plan and a vision to get there.
“Of course this will take time, it will take funding, it will take prioritisation, but we need to have that final design plan we can all work to.”
In a written statement Mr Swann also warned about serious budget problems ahead. “When we take account of inflationary pressures and the need for future pay awards, we have an estimated shortfall of £550m in 2022/23.”
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has indicated telemedicine abortion option is set to be introduced in Northern Ireland.
l See page 12