Northern Ireland health service faces problems without ministerial guidance

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The health service in Northern Ireland is unique in the UK as the only region where it is not led by a minister.

It generally faces the same challenges as in the rest of the UK, with an ageing population, increasingly complex care needs, staffing GP practices and increasing drug costs.

Hospital waiting lists remain longer than targets, and in March it was announced that an additional £30m has been allocated to be spent to alleviate the pressure.

According to the most recent figures at the end of March, some 83,392 people were waiting longer than a year for their first appointment with a hospital doctor.

And in January last year, GPs wrote an open letter to Stormont politicians warning that many practices were struggling to recruit, to retain family doctors and needed extra funding urgently.

There have also been extraordinary crises, such as during June when more than 3,200 neurology patients were recalled due to queries over a number of diagnosis by the consultant Michael Watt.

Also in June, Dunmurry Manor care home hit the headlines after an investigation by Northern Ireland’s Commissioner for Older People found a “horrific catalogue of inhuman and degrading treatment”.

Commissioner Eddie Lynch also criticised the health watchdog, the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA), claiming it had not taken sufficient action.

The RQIA has denied failing in its duty of care to properly investigate.

In 2016, international health expert Rafael Bengoa made a number of recommendations to be implemented over 10 years designed to transform the health service in Northern Ireland to make it fit for the future.

He warned about the “burning platform” – that the current outdated system will increasingly be unable to cope as pressures increase, challenges intensify and people continue to live longer lives.

His report received cross-party support at that time, but now following the collapse of Stormont in January 2017, there has been no health minister in post to lead the reforms.

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