When it comes to healthcare for all, the UK is considered one of the most progressive nations on the planet. The NHS lies at the heart of this reputation and ensures that every citizen, regardless of geographical location, financial position or social status, enjoys access to quality healthcare. So when a local Kent based NHS Trust announced plans to centralise A&E services at one of its three main hospitals, the community was understandably shocked. Under the new proposal the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust will move its A&E services to either Kent & Canterbury, Margate or Ashford hospital, leaving two buildings without any A&E facilities whatsoever.
Ashford and Margate on the chopping block
Due to its central location Kent & Canterbury is the hospital most likely to house the centralised A&E service. This puts both the Ashford and Margate A&E departments at risk of closure.
What does it mean for East Kent locals?
By far, the biggest issue for East Kent locals is the fact that seriously ill and critically injured patients will be forced to travel further if the proposals go ahead. Rather than have access to conveniently located A&E departments across the region, an Ashford and Margate A&E closure will see residents with no choice but to travel to a single, centralised location.
Lack of funding leads to A&E centralisation
So what’s caused the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust to toy with the idea of centralising the region’s A&E services? Plain and simple, it’s a response to a colossal Â£8 million black hole that has hit its finances over the past few years. The trust simply can’t afford to run multiple A&E departments which has led it to conclude that centralising services is the solution.
The man behind the mission
Freelance hospital advisor Chris Bown is the man behind the controversial centralisation plan. He describes himself as an ‘NHS trouble-shooter’ and asserts that “We have some very important challenges ahead and after the trust was put into special measures we need to make sure we make improvements.’ Bown is receiving a salary of £294,000 to take on the position of trust chief executive and execute a plan of action that will revitalise East Kent’s hospital network.
Nothing set in stone
It’s no secret that the trust is considering centralising its A&E services however Bown has been quick to assure the public that nothing has been set in stone. “We are far from making any decision and I would like to reassure the public that they will have a say in any future proposed changes,’ he says. It’s a lengthy process that will take at least a year to execute. He explains that ‘Considering options, gaining agreement from all parties, hosting a public consultation, seeking independent review and final approval” all need to be addressed before moving forward.
Opposition from UK unions
Unsurprisingly, UK unions have condemned Ashford and Margate A&E closure, warning that it will be disastrous for East Kent and its residents. Unison, Britain’s second largest union that represents over 1.3 million public sector workers is one of the strongest voices denouncing the proposal. Simon Bolton, regional organiser for Unison’s Kent based health department asserts that the public service union would categorically ‘oppose’ the plan. ‘East Kent needs both A&Es, not just one, and we think people in East Kent will be amazed to learn they’re even proposing it.’ One of his major concerns is the fact that Kent’s expansive footprint simply wouldn’t support a centralised A&E system. “Given the geography, it would create huge problems in terms of ambulance response times and patient safety. It would be a disaster waiting to happen. It’s a mad plan and it’s never going to work in a million years,” he says.
David Shortt, a founding member of East Kent based campaign group Concern for Healthcare is another ardent opposer, claiming that he is shocked that the proposal has even been put forward in the first place. ‘The trust has been well run for the last decade and this looks like a case of ‘˜if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says. ‘We have always argued for there being three emergency facilities and 12 to 14 years ago when they were talking about just retaining the emergency sites at Ashford and Thanet, we raised the issue of people from Canterbury having to travel there for treatment. Now it will be the people of Thanet and Ashford talking about having to travel to Canterbury.’
The Trust stands behind its decision
As part of the proposal the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust has issued a report explaining its motives and its vision for the future. It states, ‘These changes are needed to address the significant workforce, quality and financial challenges facing the trust currently which are expected to worsen unless service reconfiguration takes place.’
Public consultation on the cards
While East Kent residents may be in uproar about the proposal representatives from the trust are reassuring the public that they will be consulted before any conclusive decisions are made. Rachel Jones, director of strategy and business development at the East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, avows ‘We are currently engaging staff and with external partners, including the public, in developing a five- to 10-year clinical strategy. No final decision has been made and we expect to clarify the options and undertake a public consultation later this year.’ Bown has also assured the public that the trust is far from making any definitive decisions and that the public will absolutely ‘œHave a say in any future proposed changes.’
For the greater good?
A centralised A&E system may not appeal to East Kent residents however there could be some benefits on offer. Savings could be used to revamp the 75 year old infrastructure at the Kent & Canterbury Hospital, while sources have also revealed that the trust is currently eyeing up New Dover Road farmland as a potential site for a new hospital.
So will the proposal go ahead? The reality is that there is still a lot of groundwork to be done and as the trust says, the public is yet to be officially consulted. The healthcare visions of future governments will also influence decisions, as will budgets, taxes and other financial factors.