The Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) faced criticism on Wednesday after it was revealed that its one remaining paediatric pathologist was to leave their post in 2019. The result is that Northern Ireland would be left without a specialist to carry out these post-mortem examinations. Examinations would be now moved to Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust.
The paediatric pathologist was responsible for carrying out post-mortem examinations on infants. According to the BBC, there are around 240 of the post-mortems carried out in Northern Ireland every year. The post-mortems are important for closure for parents but also for future family planning, as the examinations deal extensively with stillbirths and late miscarriages.
Anticipating backlash, the HSCB and Public Health Agency spokesperson, Heather Reid, released a statement which said:
‘We recognise that the loss of a child is one of the most devastating events that can ever happen to a family and fully accept that the prospect of the post-mortem being performed outside Northern Ireland may compound the distress experienced by families. While it is acknowledged that a service outside of Northern Ireland is not what we would wish for, working closely with a much larger centre such as Alder Hey will provide a more robust service in the interim period.’
Critics, however, believe the HSCB didn’t take necessary steps to prevent this from happening. Prior to this announcement, three other paediatric pathologists had either retired or resigned without being replaced. While the Health Board claim they did not receive any credible applications to replace these specialists, the boards version of events has been challenged by an unnamed health professional who spoke to the BBC.
‘This was flagged up to management several years ago that there would be a critical shortage of specialist staff, but little was done at the time to try and recruit or retain those who were still there. Local health trusts are finding it really difficult to recruit the big posts and that’s not good for the future.’
Local politicians were also quick to criticise the HSCB on Wednesday. Ulster Unionist councillor Julie Flaherty and Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie, both having suffered the tragic loss of infants in their families, condemned the decision.
Flaherty said, ‘I lost my son Jake when he was only 2 years and 2 days old in 2013. Unfortunately, I know from bitter experience how hard it is for parents to face delays for a post-mortem – my husband and I were forced to wait an extra 2 days in order for a specialist to be found. That delay only made a nightmare even more difficult for us so I’m furious that the experience we were forced to go through will now be imposed upon so many more parents in Northern Ireland.’
SDLP’s health spokesperson, Mark Duncan, announced the decision as ‘unacceptable’ and has written to the permanent secretary of the Department of Health to seek clarification:
‘Post-mortems provide vital information – particularly for families with other children whose health could potentially be at risk to an underlying genetic condition. This knowledge is also invaluable to healthcare professionals. The proposal that families will need to send their beloved child away for a week to get these answers will mean more stress and suffering for families in their darkest hour. It may well lead to parents opting out of the process altogether. I am seeking urgent clarification not only on how this completely unacceptable situation has arisen but also on what solutions have been explored.’