Northern Trust proposes new Whiteabbey health unit

Whiteabbey Hospital's Minor Injuries Unit. INNT-02-700-con
Whiteabbey Hospital's Minor Injuries Unit. INNT-02-700-con

A new multi-disciplinary wellbeing and treatment centre could open at the Whiteabbey Hospital site, says the Northern Trust’s Chief Executive.

The comments by Dr Tony Stephens came as the Northern Trust revealed that a decision on whether to permanently close Whiteabbey’s Minor Injuries Unit (MIU) will be announced later this month, on January 28.

Dr Stephens aired the suggestion of a new medical centre at a presentation to Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council’s Community Planning and Regeneration Committee at Mossley Mill on January 11.

The NHSCT had been invited by the local authority to make the presentation on its 
five-year plan.

During the presentation, Dr Stephens said he was “really interested” in beginning a “conversation” on locating a centre similar to Ballymena’s new £25 million health and care centre on the Whiteabbey site, if investment could be secured.

“We have a choice: what would be right? Could we get investment like Ballymena to build a centre on the Whiteabbey site?” he asked councillors.

“I’m really interested in that, maybe five years away, or do we want to keep the hospital at Whiteabbey?

“I’m very keen to get into a genuine conversation, not a consultation, about what it is we do and where we want to be in five years time in terms of serving the population.”

The new Ballymena centre, which is expected to open this year, will accommodate a range of primary, community and acute outpatient clinics including rehabilitation and diagnostic services such as physiotherapy, podiatry and community dental health.

It will also feature a children’s department, six GP practices, a GP out-of-hours service, acute outpatient clinics, mental health clinics and a pharmacy.

Meanwhile, the decision on the future of the MIU at Whiteabbey Hospital is set to be announced imminently. In December 2014, the Northern Trust announced that it would close the unit “temporarily” as part of cost-saving measures.

The trust later proposed to permanently close the nurse-led facility.

At the council meeting, DUP councillor Paul Hamill said he was “disappointed” at the proposal to permanently close Whiteabbey MIU and at the number of closed Northern Trust buildings.

Dr Stephens said that the team of geriatricians and physiotherapists at Whiteabbey Hospital did “fantastic” work.

“This includes rapid access for elderly people that have a fall”, he continued.

“There is an ambulance scheme whereby if an elderly person has a fall, if they don’t think they are badly injured they can go into a falls service.

“It’s a fantastic service in Whiteabbey.”

Deputy Chief Executive of the NHSCT Pamela McCreedy also endorsed the idea of a “one-stop-shop” run by doctors and physiotherapists in the community to ease pressure on hospitals such as Antrim Area Hospital.

Dr Stephens suggested that “better uses” could be found for the land at the Whiteabbey Hospital site.

He stressed the financial impact of the upkeep of vacant buildings and grass cutting on the NHSCT.

He also revealed that the Northern Trust owns 330 buildings, and that the rates bill alone amounted to £3 million.

“For those 330 buildings we have to pay leases and maintain closed buildings, for example at Whiteabbey which is boarded up and has to be kept safe,” said Dr Stephens.

“We are keen to reduce the number of buildings. That doesn’t mean closing services, but an amalgamation of services.”

Deputy Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council Councillor John Blair commented: “We have heard about the estate needs and buildings are empty. The money could be directed to the trust responsible.

“We can only sell the family silver once but you make more money selling it once than not at all.”

Dr Stephens confirmed that the Northern Trust would be “looking at estates rationalisation” to determine what is needed in the future and what parts of the estate could be disposed of.

“Particularly in the Whiteabbey area it is obvious but equally we don’t want to make a mistake. We don’t want to retain it all, it’s costing us money to maintain but we need to retain the right amount.”

Committee Chairman Councillor Phillip Brett also revealed that land owned by the Northern Trust on the Whiteabbey Hospital site, located near the old Hillcroft School, had been identified as a possible location for the new Abbey Community College.

Dr Stephens said he had been contacted directly on that issue and had indicated a “positive response” which was “far from discouraging” the proposal.