Suicide, carers and breastfeeding high on health committee agenda

Michelle Gildernew

Michelle Gildernew

Michelle Gildernew MP, MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, is the new chairperson of the Assembly’s important health committee. Today, in an article written for The Detail, she sets out the most important issues facing the committee:

“Providing a health service that meets the needs of all the people, that delivers services for both the rural and urban population and that provides value for money – these are the challenges faced by the Assembly and department.

Our health service currently accounts for more than 40% of the total Executive budget. And while the Minister for Health is responsible for spending this budget, my committee plays an important part in ensuring that the Health Minister and his department provide the services required. As well, it is up to us to hold the Minister to account and continually review his department’s policies.

Against the backdrop of severe financial constraints across the whole Executive budget, it is imperative that my committee wastes no time in setting its priorities. We are meeting for the first time on the 25th May but already a number of issues are obviously coming to the fore.

First and foremost we believe that the department’s focus must be on frontline services for patients. To achieve that, we need to look at improving the efficiencies and value for money within the health service. This means not only ensuring that management costs are kept to a minimum, but looking at services provided elsewhere which we could tap into – saving both money and improving the services available to all our people. Both frontline and those services which make a real difference to people’s everyday lives must be protected but we will need to be creative about the way these are delivered.

We also need to look at preventative strategies. I am personally more interested in wellness rather than sickness. I know that this issue has been highlighted in the past when the previous committee carried out an inquiry into obesity which has a real impact on people’s heath. So this is clearly one area that we can take forward.

There is much more that can be done. One of the issues that I am interested in, speaking personally as the mother of young children, is improving the numbers of women who breastfeed. Studies show that breast feeding significantly benefits both babies and mothers yet it still is not the norm. One reason for this is that mothers often find it difficult to breastfeed in public – this is an issue that needs to be addressed by the Executive and it is one that I believe we should pursue vigorously.

By the time this article is delivered the Minster will have made his decision on the proposed radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin Hospital. We hope this is a positive, it is in the best interests of decentralising essential services, and is a clear cut example of the benefits for all island health planning that delivers effective, joined up health provision.

Another issue that I believe will be a priority for my committee is the provision of domiciliary care for the elderly and those in most need. Domiciliary care is not just care delivered by health service professionals – it is often delivered by relatives who are unpaid and whose work is often unrecognised. Carers are providing a vital service which benefits the entire community and we must not take them for granted. We have responsibilities to help them as they care for their relatives. It has been long recognised that respite is crucial to carers. Without respite, carers can find themselves unable to continue their activities. This is a tragedy for the families involved who, if given the right support, can ensure that their relatives are cared for with the dignity they deserve, whether this be at home or within another surrounding.

So one issue that I believe the health committee will need to look at is how we provide respite, what is available and how we can work on a local basis to support carers.

Mental health services is another issue that will be high on our list of priorities. Over the past few years we have seen far too many people take their own lives – a level of despair that we need to address. The previous health committee undertook a wide-ranging inquiry into suicide – we cannot afford to let this issue slip through the cracks.

The activities of the Department of Health affect us all and the health committee plays a crucial role in ensuring that the health service delivers to all the people. We intend to work constructively and closely with the Minister and department to make sure that the health service delivers for all people."