Ireland: an all island approach to healthcare?

Doctors, academics and patient representatives from Northern Ireland and the Republic have discussed developing increased links in relation to treatment and care, and the potential of an all-island approach to services.

The problem for both sides of the Irish border is that there is no spare capacity at hospitals in England. By July, 5.3 million people were waiting for routine NHS hospital treatment in England, the highest number since records began in 2007.

Children’s heart surgery based in Dublin and cancer services at Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital are among those already operating successfully on a cross-border basis. 90 Northern Ireland children with serious cardiac conditions travelled to the Republic’s main children’s hospital in Crumlin for major operations in 2020. Previously they would have flown to Birmingham and London for treatment.

The North West Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry is funded on a cross-border basis, and commenced services in 2016, providing access to radiotherapy services for people across the North West region. Scores of patients from Donegal have also received radiotherapy treatment in the cancer centre.

The Ireland-Northern Ireland-National Cancer Institute Cancer Consortium aims to reduce cancer incidence and mortality on the island of Ireland through cross-border and transatlantic collaboration in cancer research and education. Increased access to clinical trials on the island of Ireland is one of the clear benefits to cancer patients.

Other organisations and networks helping to deepen links North and South include the Institute of Public Health, the All-Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care and the All-Island Congenital Heart Disease Network.

Close working relationships between emergency services remain in place, with paramedics from the Republic assisting their northern colleagues when severe pressures lead to ambulances queuing outside hospitals.

The conference, where the discussion was held, is the sixth ‘Shared Island Dialogue’, an initiative launched by as part of the Dublin government’s Shared Island programme. The project aims to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue with all communities and traditions on a shared future on the island, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.

Healthcare cooperation on the island in health predates the Good Friday Agreement and has existed formally since the signing of the Ballyconnell Agreement by four health boards in the border region in 1992.

As part of the Shared Island initiative, the Irish government has established a Shared Island Fund with €500 million (US$590m) in capital funding ring-fenced for North/South projects over the next five years, which will be invested in co-funding North/South partnerships to build a more sustainable, connected, prosperous and healthier island.