Concern over private firm’s hospital role

Concern over private firm’s hospital role

20 May 2020

MOVES to appoint a private firm to provide endoscopy services at the Downe Hospital have sparked major concern.

The South Eastern Trust has this week confirmed that a proposal to work temporarily with Totally Healthcare to increase the number of investigative procedures at the Downpatrick hospital next month is being considered.

Health chiefs insist the move is necessary in response to the increasing number of patients waiting for procedures.

However, politicians and health campaigners have expressed concern about what they see as the privatisation of a key service and have raised the issue with Stormont health minister Robin Swann.

The health trust said that due to pressures within elective services during the current coronavirus pandemic, the organisation has increasing numbers of patients awaiting an endoscopy procedure “on the suspect cancer pathway”.

Officials say they have facilitated as many theatre and endoscopy sessions as possible with the staff that are currently available and that over the past number of weeks the organisation has been “proactively planning” to increase elective services in line with a regional approach.  

Health chiefs say they are keen to recommence endoscopy services in the Downe, but this is dependent on a number of factors, including staff availability.  

South Down MP Chris Hazzard has expressed “serious concern” about involving a private firm in delivering services and has asked health chiefs to review the decision immediately.

He argued that the health trust should instead focus its efforts on the restoration of the endoscopy service in partnership with the existing workforce and their trade union representatives. 

“Having spoken to staff at the Downe, I believe that a co-designed restoration of services is doable and I wholeheartedly believe that staff will engage positively with this process,” Mr Hazzard continued.

The MP said privatising the endoscopy service would “raise serious financial questions” as to the overall cost of providing the services to the public purse, with the additional cost of bringing staff from Britain to deliver a service that to date has been delivered by South Eastern Trust staff an example of this. 

Mr Hazzard added: “I will continue to proactively work with Downe Hospital, health trust and local healthcare workers to ensure that we can restore services locally, without having to relinquish scarce public resources to a private healthcare company in England.” 

The Down Community Health Committee said that, as a fervent supporter of the NHS, private contractors should only be engaged to deliver services as a “last resort”.

A spokeswoman for the South Eastern Trust confirmed that a proposal is being considered to work with a private provider to increase the endoscopy procedures being provided at the Downe.

“This would be a temporary measure in response to the increasing numbers of patients waiting for this procedure,” she continued. “Health trusts have been working alongside private providers for several years, primarily for waiting list work and including the use of Trust facilities. 

“Due to the increasing number of patients on the waiting list and our desire to offer as much access to endoscopy as possible, this would maximise all of the endoscopy capacity within the day procedure unit at the Downe which has excellent facilities.”

The spokeswoman insisted the proposal is initially for June only as a “temporary but very positive measure” to be able to offer suspect cancer patients a date as soon as possible, with the timescale dependent on Covid-19, increased “red flag” referrals and staff availability.

“The private provider has been working within the Ulster Hospital day procedure unit since September 2019 with extremely positive feedback from patients and clinicians,” the spokeswoman continued.

“This contract was paused due to Covid-19 but while it was ongoing red flag, urgent and routine waits for all endoscopy procedures were significantly reduced.”

The spokeswoman said the Downe Hospital continued to provide a vital part of the South Eastern Trust’s response to Covid-19, including the successful rehabilitation of many patients who have had the virus and and who have been safely discharged home. 

She added: “It remains the Trust’s intention to restore services in the Downe to pre-Covid-19 levels when appropriate to do so. Alongside supporting our colleagues within the care sector, we are intending to restart endoscopy and other services within the Downe in order to deliver the best possible outcomes for our patients.”