The Department of Health has said that expert units, based in Altnagelvin and Belfast, show that concentrating specialist hospital care in centres of excellence is a proven success story.
In N. Ireland, around 40% of patients with heart attacks may be eligible for a specialised emergency procedure to treat the blocked artery in their heart.
Following an ECG, such patients are taken to just two expert units in the North, often bypassing other hospitals and their Emergency Departments.
The units – at Altnagelvin and the Royal Victoria hospitals – provide this specialised treatment, which is called primary PCI.
The PCI service in Altnagelvin started five years ago, while the one in Belfast is celebrating it’s 10th anniversary.
There is also a cross-border dimension to the service, as the Altnagelvin unit treats patients from Co. Donegal.
In its early pilot years, the service typically dealt with 200 to 250 patients a year. That has now increased to between 800 and 850 each year.
Around 2100 patients suffer some form of heart attack per year in the North.
PPCI - primary percutaneous coronary intervention - is performed in a patient with an acute heart attack where there is a complete blockage of a heart artery.
It involves a fine catheter being passed through the wrist into the artery. The clot is removed and a balloon is then inflated, allowing a metal stent to be deployed to keep the artery open.
Department of Health Permanent Secretary, Richard Pengelly, said: “Primary PCI is one of the unsung heroes of health care and health transformation.
“We should all be very proud of this success story and I would pay tribute to everyone involved in providing it and making it possible.”
Figures for the service show it takes 30 minutes on average between a patient reaching the door of a primary PCI unit and restoration of blood flow to their heart.
Mr Pengelly added: “Where appropriate, concentrating certain types of hospital care in regional centres of excellence is in the best interests of patients.
“We all naturally take comfort from having services on our doorsteps, particularly in emergencies. However, there is a careful balance to be struck between accessibility and quality of treatment.
“When it comes to highly specialised treatments like primary PCI, consolidation of expertise is the right approach.”
Consolidation of hospital services is very much in focus at present, with proposals to re-shape stroke and breast assessment services across Northern Ireland.