Crucial voluntary hospital services must be maintained

Sandra Daly says the voluntary hospital services, which account for almost a third of such facilities in the country, provide an essential diversity in healthcare

Today, nearly one third of hospitals in Ireland are voluntary hospitals, and this sector deserves to be recognised and supported as it plays an integral role in the successful delivery of quality patient care. Mercy University Hospital Cork is one such organisation featuring on the Cork landscape for nearly 160 years and is testament to the power of the voluntary sector. I have had the privilege of being CEO of this value-driven organisation for four years.

Nationally, voluntary hospitals account for just less than 30% of all inpatient care. They are independently governed and owned, and provide services on a non-profit basis. A third of State funding for hospital services is granted to voluntary hospitals (approximately €1.3bn) and the sector employs a comparable number of staff (around 22,000). Voluntary hospitals have strong links with third-level education, a proven track record in health research and innovation, attract strong philanthropic support, and have professional fundraising bodies that foster close relationships with the communities they serve.

Voluntary hospitals, unlike State- owned and operated hospitals, are legally required to comply with all aspects of company law and governance standards, given their legal construct as independent organisations. It is widely recognised internationally that diversity of provision in healthcare is essential, value-added, and must be promoted to ensure best outcomes.

The board members of voluntary hospitals are highly talented individuals selected from a range of professional, academic, or community backgrounds and serve without pay or expenses. Mercy University Hospital is the second hospital in Cork and, in line with good corporate governance, authority for governing the hospital is devolved to a non-executive voluntary board who are appointed by the members of the company. There are currently 12 directors. The hospital is a registered charity and a not for profit limited company, and receives support from the Mercy University Hospital Foundation, a registered charity.

In my opinion, the language of the health sector itself is often misunderstood because of the continued focus on the lack of resources, capacity, regulation, and competing agendas. Health care is primarily a values driven sector and this is particularly evident in voluntary hospitals due to their legacy, which today remains mission-focused and consistent with the ethos and values of their founders.

What makes voluntary hospitals different? I can only truly speak for the Mercy. The hospital’s day-to-day operations and structures give the best possible expression to its mission, values, and ethos, all of which are held in trust for future generations. An appreciation of the heritage and core values of the Mercy is integral to understanding the unique contribution that it brings to the delivery of healthcare in Cork and the wider region.

Long-lasting voluntary organisations such as the Mercy have a very solid unique culture, embedded in a mission that never wavers and a core set of values that ground and shape decisions and behaviours. This is what makes the voluntary sector different and that’s why it’s worth nurturing and developing.

The core values of voluntary hospitals provide a strong reference point, and are an integral part of holistic patient care and in how those involved in treating a patient can provide compassionate care. It is not unusual for patients or staff to challenge actions or decisions that they feel are not aligned to the values and long may it continue to ensure best patient outcomes.

New challenges are being faced in Ireland relating to increased life expectancy and the associated management of chronic disease, social inclusion, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, and mental health. At the Mercy, we are still fighting for systemic change to address these societal challenges.

And it is because of our Mercy ethos that there is a constant reminder of our responsibility to have a concern for those who are vulnerable in today’s society.

We are very aware at the Mercy that if the values of the original custodians of Mercy are lost, if our standards of quality patient care fail, if we do not learn from our mistakes, if our codes of governance and business conduct are not adhered to, and if the trust of the people we serve is compromised, we are no longer worthy of its name.

I am confident that the Mercy will continue to serve the people of Cork for many decades to come with the same values and standards of care, albeit in a changing landscape, as has been done for the past 159 years.

The contribution and collective legacy of voluntary hospitals to Cork and throughout the country is enormous. The role played by the voluntary sector in healthcare provision in Ireland cannot be underestimated and is vital to the successful delivery of a sustainable health strategy.

Sandra Daly is the chief executive officer of Cork Mercy University Hospital


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