Planning permission has been granted for a new 120-bed private women and children's hospital at Sandyford in  south Dublin.

The project will increase the number of private matenity beds in Dublin at a time when there is a question mark over the future of plans to replace Dublin's existing overcrowded and outdated maternity hospitals.

The developers of the Sandyford hospital, Landmark and Beacon Medical Group (BMG), say they are confident of securing the financing to build the project and in getting approval for cover from health insurers.

But does Dublin need these extra private beds?

Landmark and BMG insist the new hospital will fill a major hospital service gap, despite current plans to build new public children's and maternity units in Dublin.

There is some doubt, however, over when plans to move Dublin's three maternity hospitals to expanded units on general hospital sites will come to fruition.

The €160 million Sandyford hospital will be privately operated but it is hoped that service level agreements can be concluded with the HSE to allow public patients access services there.

The new women's and children's hospital, when built, will include 127 single en-suite patient rooms, divided into children's, maternity and gynaecology wards, supported by six delivery rooms, in addition to day care beds, urgent care facilities and four theatres.

It will have 24-hour obstetric, neonatal and anaesthesia cover and will be located on a site adjacent to the existing UPMC Beacon Hospital in Sandyford.

A spokesman for the hospital developers said they were optimistic about securing the financing for the project, and it was hoped to begin building work next year, with a projected construction time of 18 to 20 months.

Discussions will also have to be held with health insurers on agreements for covering treatment at the new hospital.

The developers say while there is no financing for the project in place yet, it would not have been practical to have have sought financing or agreements on insurance cover until planning permission had been granted.

A 2008 HSE-commissioned report on Dublin maternity services recommended that the three existing Dublin maternity hospitals should move to general hospital sites. The report noted the current pressure on existing maternity hospitals but said each of the new units units should have the capacity to deliver up to 10,000 babies per year.

It said this should provide sufficient capacity for women currently using public maternity hospitals and would subsume any activity from private units in Dublin (Mount Carmel and the planned Sandyford hospital) should they decide to cease provision of maternity care.

The report said any increase in activity by private hospitals would have to be very substantial to have any influence on the number of public units, It predicted that the birth rate would increase up to 2016, after which births would level off.

The spokesman for the new hospital said the developers had done their own analysis and were confident that there was a demand for the new hospital's services.

They point out that Ireland currently has the highest birth rate in the European Union and that there is a considerable demand for private maternity services. They also stress that Ireland has the youngest population in the European Union.

The spokesman said the new hospital could be used by public patients, following service agreements with the HSE, and this could for example, take some of the pressure off existing maternity units.

It is not known when the planned new public maternity hospitals will be built, given the current state of the public finances. The recent revised Government capital plan suggested that they could be funded through "alternative finance means."

It is planned that the Rotunda should move to the Mater, beside the new children's hospital due to be completed in 2014, that the Coombe move to Tallaght and that Holles Street move to St Vincent's.

However, Jene Kelly, of the Association for Improvements in Maternity Services (AIMSI) says due to the current state of the country's finances, these new units may not be built for a long time.

She said AIMSI welcomed the plan for the new private maternity hospital, as this would provide beds for women who needed obstetric-led maternity care, particularly when public facilities in Dublin were under such pressure.

However, she told they would be disappointed that the new facility did not appear to have plans for the provision of midwife-led care for for low-risk pregnancies that did not need obstetric-led care.

Ms Kelly pointed out that the HSE-commissioned report on Dublin maternity services had recommended that there should be midwife-led units adjacent to the new maternity units on general hospital sites.

She said the major centralisation of maternity services on large hospitals was not the only way forward, and there should be more community-based maternity options.

When the new Mater children's hospital is built around 2014, following the closure of current children's services at Crumlin and Tallaght, the Sandyford hospital, when built, would be the only inpatient children's hospital on the southside of Dublin.

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