Ethical guidelines based on Catholic canon law will cease to apply within the St Vincent’s Healthcare Group, one of the most important hospital providers in Dublin, following the decision by the Sisters of Charity to withdraw from ownership of its hospitals after 183 years.
The move to guidelines based on current laws and best clinical practice is likely to result in the hospital providing procedures, such as elective sterilisation, that were hitherto considered incompatible with its Catholic ethos.
The change will apply to the three hospitals in the group – St Vincent's University Hospital in Elm Park Dublin, the adjoining private hospital and St Michael's Hospital in Dún Laoghaire – as well as to the National Maternity Hospital (NMH), if its planned move from Holles Street goes ahead.
The announcement by the order, which has been widely welcomed, means the transfer of the NMH to the St Vincent’s campus is likely to proceed.
Minister for Health Simon Harris described the decision as "a very significant development" that directly addressed concerns over possible religious influence in the €300 million NMH project.
Mr Harris’s officials have in recent weeks been trying to broker a compromise to address widespread public concern after it was revealed ownership of the new NMH would pass to the order through their ownership of St Vincent’s Healthcare Group (SVHG).
The chairman of SVHG, James Menton, said the Sisters' announcement had provided "enormous clarity" about how the NMH project should proceed in accordance with an agreement mediated by Kieran Mulvey last November.
“The ball is now in the court of the Minister and his department,” said Mr Menton, adding that he did not envisage any further meetings between the parties.
However, the insistence by St Vincent’s that there be no changes to the Mulvey agreement, so that it would own and control the NMH, could yet prove an obstacle.
“For the project to proceed, it needs to do so in accordance with the Mulvey report. The ownership structures in that report won’t change. There is no change in our position on that,” Mr Menton said.
The proposed board structure in that document, which gives St Vincent’s control over the appointment of five of nine directors, “stands”, he added.
In addition, the master of the NMH when it moves to St Vincent’s will report to a group clinical director, who will report to the chief executive of SVHG, rather than to the NMH board.
Former NMH master Dr Peter Boylan said the maternity hospital would not have clinical independence if its master had to report to St Vincent's.
“The board structure is not acceptable and Holles Street should not accept it.”
Mr Menton said the ethos of St Vincent’s, centred on compassion and quality of care, would not change, but current ethical guidelines underpinned by Catholic canon law would.
“These guidelines will be changed to accord with local and international best practice. It will be around the patient-doctor relationship, the laws of this State, both current and prospective, and what is medically appropriate.”
In their statement, the Sisters of Charity said ownership of SVHG is to be transferred to a newly-formed company with charitable status to be called St Vincent’s. The shares in SVHG will be transferred to St Vincent’s for a nominal consideration. The Sisters of Charity will not have a right to appoint directors to the board of St Vincent’s.
St Vincent's will initially have a transition board for up to one year. Members will include Mr Menton and SVHG directors Sharen McCabe, John Compton and Frank O'Riordan.