Fears raised as patient travel precedent set

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Fears over the future of patient travel from the Scottish Islands to the mainland were raised this week.

Ferry travel is now the only option for Shetland residents travelling for care in Aberdeen, as the NHS board in that region, introduced a pilot scheme to cut travel costs on April 1st.

Labour Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant raised her concerns about the issue, particularly in regards to the possibility of a similar policy, being introduced in the Western Isles.

Mrs Grant said: “The Scottish Government has to accept part of the blame for slashing vital budgets.”

She revealed that she had raised the matter recently with NHS Western Isles.

The MSP reported that NHS Chief Executive, Gordon Jamieson, replied that while it was not being considered at present, it could not be ruled out in the future.

Mrs Grant added: “As a native of Lewis I am acutely aware of what this means, can you imagine the additional distress to unwell and suffering patients to be told that instead of a 45-minute flight and then back home the same day, you would have to travel on the Stornoway to Ullapool ferry and then a 55-mile bus trip taking around 4.5 hrs one-way. It is just unthinkable then to add the additional distances of Harris, Uists and Barra. This along with the possibility of sea sickness adding to the patient’s health problems.”

However, Mrs Grant’s comments were blasted by Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan as “scaremongering”.

Mr Allan declared that his political opponent had not checked her facts.

He continued: “I asked the health board earlier this month to clarify whether the Western Isles would be following Shetland’s lead on the question of patient transport.

“While these matters are an operational decision for NHS Western Isles, I would not hesitate as the local MSP to oppose such plans.

“However, there are no such plans. The health board replied to me on March 23 to say that they ‘have no plans to default to road and ferry transport for patients’. It would be a good idea for Mrs Grant not to scaremonger in these circumstances.”

This week Chief Executive of NHS Western Isles , Gordon Jamieson told the Gazette: “I can confirm that NHS Western Isles has no plans to reduce, limit, or restrict patients from attending mainland health facilities to receive appropriate investigations, care and treatment that they require.

“Air travel remains the most efficient mode for NHS Western Isles overall, with few exceptions, although in some (inter-island) cases ferry is the only option.

“Our Patient Travel policy is applied consistently and strictly.”

Further commenting on the situation Angus McCormack, who is involved with the Hebridean Men’s Cancer Support Group (HMCSG) and is a member of NHS Western Isles Health Board (WIHB) focused on the improvements which could be implemented to enhance patient travel.

He said: “As a member of WIHB, I know of no proposal to change current policy in regard to patient travel.

“I would resist any attempt to diminish the present policy and indeed I hope that, in future, travel provision will be enhanced.

“That said there is scope for better Patient Pathways to be devised and a small group within the WIHB has been looking at this in recent months.

“It would be preferable, for example, if consultations with mainland consultants could be carried out via video conference. Just as long as no physical investigation was required.

“That would reduce the need for patients to travel with significant reduction in stress especially for the elderly.”

He added: “If the Scottish Government’s persists with its proposals for the regionalisation of health services there will be an even greater need for good and reliable patient travel arrangements.

“I favour a solution going forward where as much health and social care activity as is practicable takes place here in the Outer Hebrides under local control. HMCSG would endorse that view.”