Hospital births in the Northern Trust area will now be consolidated at Antrim Area Hospital, the Department of Health has confirmed.
After recommendations by the trust, the decision was taken by the department’s permanent secretary Peter May to ensure “safe, consistent and sustainable” care for mothers and babies in the area.
“An overriding priority for our health service must be the provision of safe care for our population.
“This decision is in the best interests of mothers and babies in the Northern Trust area,” Mr May said.
“Maintaining the current service across both the Causeway and Antrim sites would not be sustainable. Avoiding planned change would simply lead to unplanned and forced change.”
The Northern Trusts proposal to make the permanent change was made following a public consultation.
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This will only apply to birth services, with antenatal and postnatal clinics at the Causeway Hospital to be retained and “enhanced”.
It follows falling birth numbers at the current Causeway maternity unit and associated difficulties in recruiting and training consultants and other staff.
The department said that lower patient numbers also created pressures over rota/on-call pressures and meant it was feasible to support specialisation, experience and skill development.
The staffing issues at Causeway maternity unit is said to have created “a reliance on locum and temporary staff,” making consistent care more difficult.
A key challenge was maintaining adequate consultant cover, including for the transfer of seriously ill babies to a neonatal unit with specialised staff.
The department has included conditions for the approval, including making capacity changes at Antrim Area Hospital as outlined in the public consultation.
The Northern Trust will also need to prioritise developing an interim three-bedded Alongside Midwife Led Unit at Antrim.
This is to offer additional capacity in advance of longer-term plans for a new build Women and Children’s unit.
Explaining his decision, Mr May said he was satisfied his decision stayed within guidance set out by the Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.
“It is also consistent with the wider health transformation agenda which acknowledges that changes need to be made to ensure sustainability of services,” he said.