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NHS hotline aims for more local appointments

It is hoped that more patients will have procedures carried out at Lerwick's Gilbert Bain Hospital instead of being sent south.

PATIENTS are already benefitting from a new hotline launched by NHS Shetland this week which aims to reduce the number of unnecessary trips made by islanders to the mainland.

The patient focus booking plus scheme was started on Monday and it allows patients with appointments in Aberdeen to phone up staff in Lerwick to see if their needs can be catered for locally either in person or through video conferencing.

This should mean that less people will need to travel south – saving the cash-strapped heath board much needed money in the process.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott questioned why patients have to phone after an appointment is made and clinical nurse advisor Amanda Warnock, who is overseeing the scheme locally, acknowledged the concern.

But she said NHS Shetland doesn’t have sight of appointments made by its Grampian counterpart – an issue they are working on while the hotline is rolled out in the meantime.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott thinks the onus shouldn't be on the patient having to contact the NHS.
“We’re asking patients to contact us to see if that appointment or procedure or examination is available to be received in Shetland,” Warnock said.

“So they phone up the hotline, and we will make contact with the people that want to see them, and we will discuss with them whether that appointment is available in Shetland. We’ll get back to the patient and let them know.”

Warnock said a total of 7,000 trips were made from Shetland to the mainland in the last financial year – “how many of those were unnecessary or were things that could have happened in Shetland, I’m afraid I don’t know.”

Since launching on Monday, there have already been appointments on the mainland which have been re-booked locally.

Warnock added that the issue of patients having to phone after an appointment is actually made is hopefully one that will be sorted in the future.

“I can understand why people would say that it’s sorting the problem after the facts, but these shared pathways with these two boards are very, very complex,” she said.

“Aberdeen is a big hospital and it’s difficult to understand those referral pathways. Whilst we’re working on that in the background, this is something that we can do to help patients in the meantime.”

It is also hoped that more appointments due to take place on the mainland – which often last just a matter of minutes – could be undertaken through video conferencing instead.

However, due to broadband speeds in Shetland’s more remote areas, a trip to the Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick may still be necessary.

“We have broadband infrastructure within the Gilbert Bain Hospital to be able to support the good connections that we need with Grampian, but we realise that’s not available across the whole of Shetland, so it’s not equitable for patients in their own homes, certainly in their GP practices,” Warnock said.

“So certainly some patients use these new technologies via their consultant in their own home, but if you don’t have good enough broadband speed to support that, it would mean having a physical trip to the Gilbert Bain rather than Aberdeen.”

The clinical nurse advisor added that the scheme should have an overall positive effect on patients, especially ones who are poorly and facing an unnecessary trip south.

“Travelling to Aberdeen is a massive burden to islanders,” Warnock said. “Quite often we hear stories of patients heading down to an out patients appointment and they’re in the room with somebody for just a couple of minutes, and that’s their whole trip.

“They’re stuck in Aberdeen for the whole day, they’re hanging around an airport, that person has possibly had to take a day off work or sort child care or sort care of a loved one. Or at the other end, if that’s somebody that’s very frail, then they would need somebody with them.

“It’s very fatiguing to have to make a trip like that and be off the island all day. And it causes a lot of anxiety as well – it’s difficult to travel when you’re well, on and off island, but if you’re frail and you’re not able and you have to travel unnecessarily, that’s a burden that patients shouldn’t really have to suffer.”

Scott praised the principle of having more appointments conducted locally but he said it “should be the NHS sorting this out – not the patient”.

“Surely between Lerwick and Aberdeen, the NHS can work out the most effective way in which a patient can consult with a medical expert to avoid two days of travel and an overnight stay in Aberdeen?” he questioned.

“So the proposed practice looks the wrong way round with the onus on the patient to make phone calls to a hotline. It should be the NHS contacting the patient.

“I also want to see all of Shetland’s GP practices with superfast broadband so that people in for example, Unst can go to the Baltasound surgery and use video conferencing to speak to Aberdeen. That is what telemedicine is meant to be about.”

Patients with an appointment with NHS Grampian are asked to phone the hotline on 01595 743300 to find out if they can be seen locally. The number is manned 9am – 5pm Monday to Friday and there is a voicemail system in place outside those hours.