Anger over proposed NHS overhaul

East London to be hit by . . Photo: Gavin Spencer

Average ambulance travel times could increase by up to four minutes. Photo: Gavin Spencer

Plans to dramatically reduce outpatient appointments in a multi-million pound cost-cutting proposal are set to provoke anger and controversy in the East End.

Some 21 members of the Joint Committee of Primary Care Trusts for north-east London, including representatives from Tower Hamlets and Hackney, voted unanimously on Tuesday evening to launch a 13-week consultation into how a proposed overhaul of local health services could be implemented.

The restructuring, if it goes ahead, could save the NHS £21 million.

It would mean that a minimum of 40 per cent of accident and emergency attendances in Tower Hamlets and Hackney will cease to be dealt with by hospitals, and will be absorbed instead by ‘urgent care services’ provided in part by local surgeries. Overall hospital outpatient appointments in north-east London are set to be reduced by 60 per cent.

Directors aim to cut time spent in hospital beds, developing instead a “robust strategy for care outside of hospital,” according to Heather O’Meara, chief of Redbridge PCT.

The complex document laying out details of the proposals was published last week. Directors say it was conceived through a rigorous process of consultation with clinicians and patients.

But many members of the public believe they have not been properly consulted because the plans have not been put into simple English. Officials admitted on Tuesday they had not written a summary of changes for the general public, but had produced instead several hundred pages of medical jargon.

Tower Hamlets resident Chris Bailey, 27, said: “This document must be a thousand pages long. How am I ever supposed to read it?”

Major concerns over the feasibility of the project revolve around increased travel times, as the re-organisation of hospitals would mean some patients need to travel longer distances in order to reach experts at specialised hospitals.

This change in patient flow could push up the average journey times of ambulances on blue lights in north-east London by an estimated 2.8 minutes, and ambulances not on blue lights by about 4 minutes.

Amid heckling from angry members of the public, Helen Brown, director for the acute care services review, attempted to present the benefits of the plans to the attendees of the meeting, held in public on Tuesday evening at West Ham football club.

Ms Brown explained that the complicated proposals involved shifting a range of patient services from hospitals to a network of new ‘polyclinics’. These multi-purpose surgeries are aimed at providing a wider range of services than traditional GP practices, including x-rays and other diagnostic procedures. They will also operate longer hours so patients can access care more easily.

Dr May Cahill, chair of the Hackney and City professional executive committee, describes polyclinics as “hubs of care”. There will be a network of up to 30 in north-east London, with up to eight in Hackney and Tower Hamlets.

But critics see the plans as a cover for cuts. The recommendation earmarked by clinicians as the most viable could save the NHS around £21 million.

Ms Brown, however, denied that the review was financially motivated. She said: “The health of the population is not as good as we want it to be, not because of the individuals in the health services but because of the way the system is organised. That is why we are doing this.”

The consultation process will begin on 30 November and end in March next year. A final decision based on the findings will be made next July.

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