COUNTY WEXFORD could face a major change in hospital services if proposals currently being considered to downgrade Waterford Regional Hospital and review the link between it and Wexford become a reality.
Patients in most parts of the county would face lenghtier journeys for many important treatments as a result, while even those in North County Wexford - roughly equal in distance between Dublin and Waterford - could be affected in emergency situations, if they are first brought to Wexford only to then be referred back up the N11 to Dublin instead of the shorter distance from Wexford to Waterford.
Thousands of protestors, including many from Wexford, took to the streets of Waterford on Saturday, with one clear message - 'don't touch the hospital'.
Up to 15,000 converged on the city's streets to protest amid speculation that the Government will move to implement a report by an expert group, that is understood to recommend the break-up of the South East's current hospital network.
It is feared that Waterford Regional Hospital, which serves a catchment area of 500,000 people, will lose its regional status and be downgraded to county hospital status, linked to Cork University Hospital (CUH). Under this plan, it is also believed Wexford General Hospital would link up with teaching hospitals in Dublin.
There are major fears that the end of the south eastern network would lead to some vital services being transferred from Waterford Regional Hospital.
Last week Minister for Health James Reilly said no decision had yet been made on the issue, however he has said that he is committed to keeping both cancer and trauma services in place at Waterford Regional Hospital.
The report, which is believed to recommend the breakup of the South Eastern Hospital Network is due to be handed to the Minister for Health tomorrow (Wednesday) and it will then be brought to cabinet.
Saturday's march in response to fears of a downgrading of Waterford Regional Hospital was organised by a lobby group, Save Waterford, who were formed just two weeks ago
'The people of Waterford and the people of the southeast have sent a clear message: don't touch our hospital,' said Andrea Galgey, who organised the non-political protest with Gillian Sauvage Corcoran.
It is feared the downgrading of the hospital would strip vital services and hit young and old people across Waterford, Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny.
Consultant in emergency medicine at WRH, Dr Mark Doyle, has said that the development of the hospital over the past 20 years has been with the view to providing services to the half a million people in the south-east region.
'We believe firmly, and we have spoken to Professor Higgins on this and he did not leave us in any great doubt on what he was thinking, that the breakup of the region is on the cards and we believe this will be severely detrimental for the provision of clinical services to the population of the south-east,' said Dr. Doyle.