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Shorter waiting times for operations is seeing patients from elsewhere in the Highlands encouraged to make the trip to Fort William and have their procedures carried out in the Belford Hospital.
NHS Highland says patients prepared to travel could significantly reduce their waiting times for procedures by choosing to have their care carried out at other NHS Highland hospitals rather than the Raigmore in Inverness.
An Aviemore man recently did just that by travelling 65 miles to have his procedure done at the Belford Hospital, rather than the 29 miles to the Inverness hospital.
Instead of waiting five months, James Mair, 76, was able to be operated on in just five weeks.
Now other patients are being encouraged to make the same choice in order to make use of spare capacity in smaller hospitals such as the Belford.
Mr Nair said: ‘It was five weeks or five months, which is a big difference. And it was easy. My brother took me down. It was just over an hour’s journey and I was kept overnight so I travelled back the next day.’
Dr Katrina Gannon, a consultant anaesthetist at the Belford, said it was not unusual for patients from across Highland to come to the Belford for their procedures.
‘We do general surgery and general urology here. We have three operating lists per week and often have spare capacity,’ she explained.
Dr Gannon added: ‘We wanted to help, so we rearranged things to create some extra capacity which we could offer Raigmore.
‘Some of the Raigmore surgeons still come to the Belford on a Wednesday to operate, mostly on their own Raigmore patients.
‘But we also have some capacity for our own surgeons to operate on Raigmore patients and we have been doing quite a bit of that too.
‘Of the 540 patients operated on at the Belford in 2018, about 100 were Raigmore patients. Looking at the data for 2019 so far, the proportion of Raigmore patients will be considerably higher.’
However, one local resident wanted to know why, if this was the case, were local people still being sent to Inverness/Invergordon/Wick and Golspie for so many procedures.
‘The pain clinic is a prime example. You get a consult in Invergordon and treatment is either Golspie or Wick. The surgeon goes to these much smaller hospitals from Raigmore, so he is already having to leave Inverness to travel to these clinics,’ she said.
‘There is at least a one year to 18 months waiting list for recurring patients and many of these come from Fort William.
‘Can they not use the Belford to treat all these locals who are in pain and cannot comfortably get to these places for morning procedures so that they can be discharged mid afternoon and be sent home again after multiple jags into their spines, otherwise they have to stay overnight in a B&B.
‘This is not a criticism of the Belford in any way but to have locals travel hundreds of miles to get treatment and for Aviemore people coming here just seems ludicrous. ‘
Asked to respond, an NHS Highland spokesperson told us: ‘We are very keen to develop services in remote and rural Hospitals such as Caithness General Hospital, the Belford Hospital and the Lorn and Islands Hospital.
‘Sometimes difficulties with recruitment and retention of key staff get in the way of us being able to do this and sometimes procedures and operations are so complex that we have to do them in Raigmore where we have a wider range of advanced support services available for patients.
‘But, in principle, we are looking to provide treatment as locally as possible when we can.
‘We are working on reducing the amount of travelling that patients have to do for their appointments for example we have introduced ‘NHS Near Me’ where patients are able to use videoconferencing locally for their appointment, when their clinician may be calling from some distance away.
‘The Chronic Pain Service comprises a number of different professionals from nursing, physiotherapy, consultant and psychology, and offers a range of services from injection clinics, one-to-one clinics with individual professionals to multi-disciplinary team clinics.
‘These can be carried out either through ‘NHS Near Me’, telephone clinics and theatre clinics in both Wick and Golspie. The multi-disciplinary clinics are currently provided from Invergordon, Golspie and Caithness which have the facilities and capacity to support the team.
‘We are in the process of reviewing how we run a number of our services in NHS Highland and we can look to see how we might be able to improve patient access to this clinic in the future.’