Emergency departments will be trialling a new phone-first service in the latest bid to ease pressures and prevent overcrowding, it has been announced.
Adults and children, with urgent but not life-threatening illness, will be asked to call before attending.
The dedicated telephone line is being piloted at the Causeway Hospital from Tuesday at 10:00 GMT and will run 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
It is hoped Craigavon and Daisy Hill will follow in the coming weeks.
Health Minister Robin Swann said: “Unfortunately in recent weeks we have witnessed people facing long waits to be seen in overcrowded emergency departments (EDs).
“The impact of Covid-19, and the focus on infection prevention and social distancing, has driven home the urgent need for change.
“We need to protect our patients and staff. We cannot allow our EDs or hospitals to continue to see this level of crowding in future.”
The Department of Health has insisted patients who do not ring before attending an ED will not be turned away.
But, they say if their condition is not life-threatening, they may have to wait longer or be signposted to another service.
Dr Margaret O’Brien, head of general medical services at the Health and Social Care Board, said: “The Phone First service aims to keep our EDs for emergencies, whilst ensuring rapid access, assessment and treatment on a 24/7 basis for patients who need urgent care.
“When you call the Phone First service for Causeway Hospital ED, you will be directed to a healthcare professional who will clinically assess your condition or the person you are phoning on behalf of.
“They will then make arrangements for you to access the most appropriate service to your needs.
“This may mean offering you an appointment at the Causeway ED, organising further investigations or redirecting you to your local GP, GP Out of Hours or nearest Minor Injuries Unit.”
Meanwhile, Dr Fergal Dunn, a consultant in emergency medicine at Causeway ED added: “We need your help at this extremely difficult time and I encourage patients to please Phone First if your condition is not life threatening.
“But remember, if it is an emergency, if the situation is critical or life threatening then ring 999 immediately.”
The Phone First number to ring is 0300 123 1 123.
The Phone First text relay number is 18001 0300 123 1 123.