THE chief executive of the Western Trust has conceded that current arrangements which see patients being sent to Derry for blood tests is "not ideal".
Neil Guckian also said the health body will also bring forward calls for a stand-alone phlebotomy/blood testing hub in the town.
Prior to the pandemic, blood tests for hospital outpatients were completed at local GP surgeries in the town, but now under a new policy many patients from the town and surrounding district are being advised that they have to travel to the city.
West Tyrone Sinn Féin MLA., Maolíosa McHugh, said a the new policy is having a major impact on vulnerable patients who are now expected to travel some distance to avail of the service.
He had subsequently written to the Trust and to the directorate of Primary Care, Strategic Planning and Performance Group (SPPG) within the Department of Health (DoH) requesting "that immediate steps are taken to set-up a stand-alone phlebotomy hub".
Mr McHugh said the establishment of a testing hub locally will mean local people do not have to travel, while it will also free up capacity at both Mourneside and Riverside Practice treatment rooms for other appointments.
Responding to the missive, Mr Guckian explained: "The Trust have also been made aware that over recent weeks people from Strabane town have been informed by their GP Practices that they will have to travel to Derry to have bloods taken.
"It is noted that people are requiring bloods taken in advance of their appointment as this makes the clinic visit a better experience for the person attending.
"Whilst GP colleagues have raised concerns that this is due to patients requiring hospital appointments, we also believe that a number of other factors are contributing to this demand.
"The number of patients requiring appointments will increase as a consequence of services rebuilding and some patients not being seen during COVID surges.
"Equally the capacity to see the same number of people in a day for bloods in GP practices has decreased due to the infection control measures required to safeguard people because of COVID.
"These measures are currently being reassessed by infection prevention control teams.
"Furthermore the number of patients being managed under shared care guidelines is increasing. Whilst it is positive that patients have more access to treatments, this causes additional demand on GPs surgeries for the patient monitoring requirements of these drugs."
Mr Guckian explained that in relation to the current Trust hubs, regional funding was provided to the Trust to develop Phlebotomy Hubs, to support virtual outpatient appointments in a response to COVID-19 surges.
"The funding was for 5.8 whole time equivalent staff to cover three sites - Gransha Park, Omagh and Enniskillen. The hubs are based close to hospital sites," he continued.
"It has been difficult to maintain this service as the funding has been temporary and many staff have left for more long-term posts.
"We currently have three staff who are covering Gransha and Omagh.
"To meet demand we have cross trained our COVID testing staff so that they can help out with this service."
During 2021/22 over 7,195 patients attended the hubs, the health chief added.
"Funding for phlebotomy hubs has been extended until the end of June 2022 however the Trust has agreed that they will go at risk and extend staff until the end of September to maintain current services," Mr Guckian added.
"The need for this service is recognised to prevent patients travelling unnecessarily to hospitals.
"We are currently gathering information with a plan to meet with GPs and the SPPG to look at how we can fund and potentially expand the service.
"Within this planning we will bring your request to SPPG to support the commissioning a phlebotomy hub in Strabane.
"The Trust acknowledges that the current arrangements are not ideal for patients having to travel from Strabane to Derry to access phlebotomy services.
"We will continue to work towards a solution for the needs of the population of Strabane town."