THE health watchdog has been asked by Health Minister James Reilly to examine care standards at Cavan maternity unit – although he insists it is "very safe and very good".
It follows the inquiries into the deaths of three babies in the maternity unit in the last 18 months, the most recent of which happened on Wednesday.
The instruction by the minister does not amount to a full-scale review which is under way in the maternity unit of Portloaise hospital. But it will see inspectors from the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) visit the Cavan maternity unit and scrutinise key areas of patient safety.
The HSE said yesterday that one of the consultants in the maternity unit is on administrative leave. The doctor has been replaced by a full-time locum obstetrician.
The minister, who was on a visit to Kingscourt, Co Cavan, said yesterday he is to ask HIQA to pay "particular attention" to the maternity services in Cavan in addition to Portlaoise.
"I want to reassure people, especially women who are expecting a child, that there is a safe service in Cavan but nonetheless, given the events of the past 18 months, I want to be doubly reassured that there isn't more to be done in order to make the service even safer," Dr Reilly said.
He said he had spoken to the chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan who has assured him that the service in Cavan was "very safe and very good" and had a bright future.
He stressed the need for external agencies to maintain surveillance of the health service saying there is a need to bring "utter objectivity" to oversight of standards.
An independent investigation is under way into a second baby who died at the unit last month. The review team will examine if a delay in performing a caesarean section contributed to the baby's death.
A third baby who was born in in Cavan maternity unit in November 2012 and died shortly afterwards is also the subject of a review.
The minister agreed the review was taking too long and he hoped that it would be finalised in the coming weeks.
Maternity units are to come under greater scrutiny in the coming years as decisions will have to be made on whether all 19 should remain open or whether some with a lower birth rate will close.
The HSE said further studies on maternity services in the west and north-west will be carried out before any decisions are made on their future.
Bill Maher, group chief executive of the west and north-west hospitals group, was commenting on a report which will have implications for maternity units in Ballinasloe, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Letterkenny General Hospital.
It calls for significant changes in the manner in which maternity services are delivered in the region and said one of the options to be looked at is the closure of four units with Galway as a hub.
The report has been seized on by opposition election candidates – but the HSE is attempting to play down speculation.