Fearghal McKinney has been appointed the new Head of British Heart Foundation Northern Ireland (BHF NI), taking up the reins as the heart and circulatory disease charity launched their new Strategy to 2030.
Launched in May, the strategy sets out an ambition that by 2030 the BHF will see advances across the spectrum of heart and circulatory diseases; prevent these conditions from developing and for those with existing conditions to have better, longer lives.
McKinney says there was no better time to join BHF NI and lead their ambitious plans locally: “It’s been an exciting time to be joining a charity that has such a long and successful history in heart and circulatory disease research.
“Research has given us machines that can restart hearts, the ability to fix arteries in tiny babies, the power to give someone a heart they weren’t born with and so much more.
“However, heart and circulatory diseases still kill one in four in Northern Ireland. That’s why our Strategy to 2030 is as urgent and vital as ever. I see huge opportunities to make a real difference.
“I have spent my first few months bedding in to my new role and meeting all the staff and volunteers who make the charity such a success, as well as people across Northern Ireland impacted by heart and circulatory disease and those working in the field.”
BHF is the largest independent funder of heart and circulatory disease research in Europe. Research funded by the charity has led to the development of the portable defibrillator, new surgical techniques for children born with congenital heart disease, the discovery of genes that can lead to sudden death and the development of stents.
McKinney says that although the charity has made great strides in saving and improving the lives of those in Northern Ireland living with heart and circulatory disease, there is still much more to do.
“I wanted to join BHF NI because I could see how their research has improved the lives of local people. We get no financial support from government. Every penny we raise is from fundraising, our local shops and from corporate partnerships. So, you can easily see how every penny we get is poured back into world leading research.
“BHF has achieved so much already but there’s much more that needs to be done. We want to increase heart attack survival to 90 per cent by 2030, to halve premature death and disability from stroke and to triple the number of people who survive a cardiac arrest.
“Our aims are ambitious but I believe we can achieve them. It’s vital that we guard against complacency. We need to work in partnership with our political leaders, health and social care and medical research community to accelerate research into improving treatments further. With the continued commitment of our researchers and the public’s generous support, we hope that the next 10 years will see us make unparalleled progress towards our vision of a world free from the fear of heart and circulatory diseases.”
McKinney adds that he also has aims and ambitions specific to Northern Ireland and will focus on achieving these in his new role.
“We need to see a comprehensive strategy to tackle cardiovascular disease in Northern Ireland. Despite the fact that cardiovascular disease remains the biggest single killer here, killing 10 people each day, there is no strategic approach to tackle it.
“That is why we are in the process of setting up a panel of experts including highly respected cardiologists, health officials and others, who will work with us on a cardiovascular disease task force which will produce a report that will be presented to the Department of Health. This is an absolute priority for us in the coming months.”
BHF NI will also focus on other policy issues including making CPR mandatory on the school curriculum and organ donation.
“Each year here 1,400 people suffer an out of hospital cardiac arrest, but less than one in 10 of them survive to return home to their family. We believe if CPR training was made mandatory on the school curriculum here, then these survival rates would improve dramatically. There is a wealth of evidence from other countries in the world that this approach works and we want to make it happen in Northern Ireland.
“We are also being left behind on organ donation. We will soon be the only part of the UK that does not have a soft opt-out organ donation system in place. With MSPs in Scotland passing legislation to introduce a soft opt-out system in June 2019, they joined Wales and England. The Government in the Republic of Ireland has approved the drafting of legislation that would introduce a soft opt-out system. We are failing all of the people here who are desperately waiting on a lifesaving organ.
“We are a unique charity in that firstly, we don’t depend on government funding to survive so can always speak for patients as an impartial voice and secondly, that our distinguished history in research means we don’t do anything without a strong evidence base.”
In Northern Ireland, BHF has funded £4 million into research at Queen’s University Belfast, provides 65 per cent of post primary schools with free equipment to CPR train their pupils and has funded a nurse post in the Inherited Cardiac Conditions Service, based in Belfast City Hospital, but serving all Trust areas here.
They also have eight charity shops in towns and cities across Northern Ireland raising money for lifesaving research and providing volunteering opportunities for people across the country.
McKinney says that in today’s environmentally aware climate, charity shops are uniquely placed to tackle big issues such as fast fashion, recycling and sustainability.
“We have eight shops across Northern Ireland and each year we are saving 271 tonnes of clothes and textiles, 154 tonnes of books and 60 tonnes of bric-a-brac from landfill locally. The charity retail sector is going through a metamorphosis because, not only is the public a lot more aware of the environmental impact of the retail industry, but fashion retailers can take advantage of new partnership opportunities to meet fashion’s rising sustainability agenda.
“It’s an exciting time for our shops and I hope to build on our current offering in the weeks and months ahead.”
The former health spokesperson says the last few months settling into the new role has motivated him even further to make a difference for the people of Northern Ireland.
“It has been an inspiring few months. I have met families who have lost loved ones and despite their unimaginable pain are determined to raise funds for our research so others don’t suffer. I have chaired an event in Stormont with BHF Professor Steve Humphries, who made history by developing a blood test that shows whether someone has a genetic fault that leads to dangerously high blood pressure, and met so many volunteers who give up their time for us so we can beat the heartbreak of heart and circulatory disease.
“I look forward to building on all this work over the coming months and years.”
BHF Northern Ireland
T: 028 9053 8301