Professor Niall O'Higgins looks back on the significant developments at UHL since it first opened 62 years ago
THERE WAS much excitement when the Minister for Health declared the opening of the new Regional Hospital Limerick in April 1955, 62 years ago.
I know of the joyful celebration that occurred on that day because I was there in attendance as a schoolboy.
Since then, amazing changes and improvements in medical practice have occurred worldwide. Joint replacements, organ transplants, cardiac surgery, keyhole surgery, renal dialysis, effective drugs for high blood pressure, ulcers, cancers, infections, high cholesterol and heart disease are now part of everyday practice.
Sophisticated diagnostic developments, such as CT, MRI and PET scans allow identification of abnormalities in the most silent and secret parts of the body. By these means, in addition to healthy lifestyle practices, people are not just living longer but living longer well.
The public, increasingly aware of these advances, rightly expects such services to be available to those who need them. Health planners and politicians are also anxious to provide the best care that society can afford, knowing that if we do not keep the pace we will be left behind.
In the latter decades of the 20th century, the Regional Hospital and its staff continued to strive for improvements but were held back by lack of investment, delay in supporting the development of specialist services and poor integration of facilities and services in the Mid-West region.
A plan was required to define the functions of the hospitals and their relationship with each other.
The need for dialogue with the successful University of Limerick was also obvious because liaison with UL could allow teaching and research in the hospitals to be developed and expanded, thus leading to improvements in care for patients.
Driven by convincing global evidence that the modern medical care requires specialisation and concentration of professional expertise, health planners and the public soon recognised that there was a need to co-ordinate acute hospital services in the country.
Hospital Groups were established and under this policy the Mid-west Group, now the UL Hospital Group, was set up incorporating the Limerick, Clare and North Tipperary areas under a single integrated governance.
The UL Hospital Group now delivers co-ordinated, coherent acute hospital care. Enormous improvements have resulted from this arrangement.
Some examples include: (i) new ward and day-care facilities in Ennis, equipped to the best contemporary standards (ii) new Day Care Surgery centre in Nenagh, also on a par with the best (iii) modern Critical Care Block on the Dooradoyle campus, incorporating Intensive Care and High Dependency Units (iv) 24- hour per day Cardiac Centre for investigation and treatment of patients with heart disease (v) Breast Clinic (vi) Centre for Cystic Fibrosis (vii) Centre for Stroke and Parkinson’s Disease (viii) Dermatology Centre with the most modern equipment week (viii) an Centre for Education and Research comprising lecture theatre and educational facilities in the heart of UL Hospital and now, (ix) the much-awaited splendid Emergency Department.
The Department of Health, HSE and our local public representatives have been largely responsible for great changes but the amazing efforts and support of the Mid-West Development Trust, the McManus family and many other voluntary organisations have also spearheaded such spectacular success.
The linkage with the University of Limerick is developing quickly. The success of the Medical School has brought to the hospitals enthusiastic medical experts in teaching and research, thus energising the entire hospital system.
Days where clinical and applied research programmes are reported have been widely acclaimed. The UL Hospital Group Board continues to enjoy the enthusiastic personal support and attention of the President of UL.
Within the past five years the Hospital Group has been transformed into a teaching hospital complex whose reputation is increasing with each passing month.
The CEO and executive team have moved the hospitals onwards in a speedy trajectory towards excellence.
The ambition stated in 2015 was to place the UL Hospital Group among the top three in the country by 2018. We may not be there yet but we are well on the way towards this ambitious target. It should be acknowledged that the system is still far from perfect.
Patients, their families and supporters are encouraged to comment on services, whether good or not good. It has become a crucial tenet that all our staff try continually to improve services. The energetic Patient Council is now well-established to guide, advise and draw attention to ongoing needs.
Much more needs to be done. Plans are advanced for a 96-bed in-patient block at the UL Hospital, the move of the Maternity Hospital to the Dooradoyle site is a priority and a total rebuild of the 89-in-patient beds at St John’s Hospital is required.
Strong co-operation exists between the UL Hospital Group the Community Health Organisation in the region.
As the areas served by both are geographically identical, the prospect of closer and more streamlined services is obvious.
Improved communication and simplified methods of transfer of patient between community and hospital services remain major issues. We must do much more to help the GPs. Hospital services need to develop closer dialogue and collaboration with general practitioners, included in which must be more clinical and diagnostic services for GPs in the region.
Hospitals should, of course, be centres of skill and sources of medical expertise, but they should also fulfil an educational role.
Hospitals should have areas where health promotion and disease prevention are presented to the public in attractive, perhaps interactive, format.
Information should be based on scientific evidence and be updated regularly.
Hospitals should be considered as resources for the community and be made as welcoming and attractive as possible so that people can take justifiable pride in their own specialist health facilities.
During the past five years the development of the UL Hospital Group has been astonishing.
The benefit to the citizens of the region and beyond deserves more widespread acknowledgement than perhaps it has received.
I have felt a particular sense of pride in my home town, to have been associated with the UL Hospital Group during the past five years as chairman of the Board.
I wish to thank all the staff of the hospitals and all the many voluntary supporters who have brought the care of patients forward, often in times of great difficulty, to a level not considered possible a few years ago.