THERE are fears the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) could be downgraded to a “glorified clinic” after the Western Trust warned the hospital’s ever-shrinking acute surgery workforce was approaching unsafe levels.
It had been expected that the acute surgery service, also known as emergency surgery, would be withdrawn this week, which would result in Fermanagh patients being sent to hospitals in Derry, Craigavon and even over the border to Sligo. On Monday this week the Trust announced it had granted the service a stay of execution for the immediate future, however it warned more consultants must be recruited soon if the service was to survive.
The Trust’s Chief Executive, Neil Guckian has since been criticised by Cllr Paul Blake after Mr Guckian said the SWAH could be run in the future as a “regional elective centre,” adding that the Trust was “determined to make that vision a reality.”
Something that Cllr Blake warned would effectively be a downgrading of service.
“This thing about SWAH making itself an ‘excellent elective centre’ – that’s a glorified clinic,” he said.
“People need to be aware of the difference between elective and non-elective surgery.
“We don’t want it. We need our services enhanced – we’re the most geographically remote part of Northern Ireland and our hospital is vitally important to the local community.
“They shouldn’t be trying to gloss over the cracks with fancy terms about ‘elective surgery’ – come clean with people and tell them exactly what they’re trying to do.”
Meanwhile, Geraldine McKay, Director of Acute Services at the Western Trust stressed recruitment to keep the emergency service to a high standard, and to ensure staff and patient safety, had been a growing concern.
She said, “We have become increasingly concerned at the fragility of emergency general surgery at the SWAH.
“Despite our efforts to recruit, we have not been successful to date in securing the necessary consultant workforce.
“In recent months, the Trust has highlighted the challenges of recruiting and retaining experienced consultant surgeons to provide the service.
“This is not a question of funding but maintaining the required workforce. The Trust is funded for six consultant surgeons to provide the service and we are currently working with three surgeons supported by locums.
“In recent days, we have been notified of forthcoming changes in the staff team which unless restored will leave it impossible to sustain a safe emergency general surgery service at the hospital.
“While intensive recruitment efforts will continue, we also have to prepare for a future in which these do not prove successful.
“No matter the outcome, however, it is important to stress that elective surgery at the hospital will continue and there would be minimal to no impact on the other existing services at the SWAH.”
However, Cllr Donal O’Cofaigh warned that if the Trust failed to solve it’s recruitment issues and that the emergency surgery service had to close, patients in Fermanagh needing urgent care could suffer as a result.
He said: “In the future, we will have ambulances in Fermanagh drive past the SWAH and drive onwards to either Craigavon Hospital – which is already overwhelmed – or to Altnagelvin which is more than two hours drive from certain parts of western Fermanagh.
“If a child has an appendix burst in Belleek, they’re going to face a very long journey to get seen to or be operated upon. Or if someone arrives dead on arrival at Altnagelvin, it could transpire later on that they could have been saved if the SWAH had been available to them.”
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