Northern Ireland’s new health minister has said attachment to “bricks and mortar” should not be a barrier to change as he called for an overhaul in how services are delivered.
Simon Hamilton warned the NHS would decline without far-reaching reform and added specialist services should be delivered from specialist facilities.
Earlier this week it was revealed consultations are to begin on the closure of a number of residential care homes.
Mr Hamilton said: “We can all have attachments to the bricks and mortar of the NHS.
“Maternity wards where our children were born. Hospitals where our sick loved ones were made better. And care homes where our grandparents lived.
“They are, in some cases, generations-old emotional ties. I understand them. I have them myself. But they mustn’t be allowed to become barriers that inhibit our citizens from getting the highest standard of healthcare.”
The DUP minister said reform, transformation and innovation were key to delivering the best health and social care.
“We all know that the facility is far less important than the service that is provided to the patient and that if, in the end, the patient gets the care they need, it shouldn’t matter where that care is given.
“Yet it does seem that we are too often committed to the structure and not the service.”
Care homes earmarked for closure include two in Belfast, two in Londonderry and three in Co Down.
Campaigners have been resisting moves to shut a number of smaller local hospitals. Health unions have taken industrial action over pay.
Mr Hamilton, who delivered his address at a cancer centre based at the City Hospital in Belfast, said specialist services provided by specialist facilities is evidently the best way forward.
“It’s what results in the highest quality and safety of care for our citizens. It is the most effective use of our resources. And it’s what will make Northern Ireland’s health and social care system world class.
“Resisting common sense change, turning against best practice and opposing evidence-based reforms will only deny the people of Northern Ireland the world-class health and social care services they deserve.”
He said he understood the concerns that talk of reform and transformation in the health service can conjure up in people’s minds.
“People can worry that transformation could result in the care they receive being done very differently. Staff can worry that change is code for upheaval in how they work.
“There are worries that reform will lead to the closure of facilities.”
He said report after report – including one by former chief medical officer in England Sir Liam Donaldson – concluded that if Northern Ireland wanted the highest standards of health and social care then the current configuration of services was not going to work.
“Some might argue that it isn’t working properly now.”
An ageing population, unhealthy lifestyles and a rise in the number living with chronic conditions is a “heady cocktail” which has not been tackled properly, the minister added.