CAMPAIGNERS who fought to save a highly-regarded Ross-shire rheumatology unit are demanding answers after an NHS Highland decision to requisition beds to handle the spike in flu admissions.
The decision to temporarily close the minor injuries unit at the Ross Memorial Hospital in Dingwall because of a planned transfer of patients from Raigmore Hospital has infuriated the Friends of the Highland Rheumatology Unit (HRU) group which says that five of the facility’s 10 beds have been requisitioned under the plan – sparking longer term fears it could again be under threat.
The HRU treats patients suffering from various forms of arthritis from across the Highlands and has established a high reputation for the quality of its care.
NHS Highland announced the plans, which came into effect this week, at short notice, saying it’s part of a contingency plan to free up bed capacity at Raigmore Hospital, which is experiencing "significant pressure" from flu admissions.
People with minor injuries are being advised to contact their local GP or attend the unit at the County Community Hospital at Invergordon. The out-of-hours service can be contacted via NHS 24 on 111.
Chris Arnold, district manager for Easter Ross, said: "The decision to temporarily close the unit has been taken as part of a contingency plan to help the health board cope with the mounting pressures of seasonal illness, including flu. The more care we can provide for patients in the community, the less elective procedures will have to be cancelled in Raigmore."
MSP Gail Ross said she was "puzzled and concerned" by the move and says the Friends of the HRU group, which has funded thousands of pounds worth of improvements and "campaigned tirelessly for this unique and valuable resource", should have been shown more respect and courtesy.
She’s asking health chiefs for an explanation and wants them to reconsider use of a specialist unit. She said staff at the HRU had earned the admiration of patients across her Caithness, Sutherland and Ross constituency for their "incredible care and dedication".
Highland councillor Kirsteen Currie, whose late mother was looked after at the HRU, also voiced grave concerns.
She said: "In 2011 some readers may remember that both my parents took the health board to task on the way in which the then chairman, Garry Coutts, was attempting to make cuts to the facility based on inaccurate information. What worries me now is that potentially a similar situation could occur and we could lose an incredibly valuable facility which serves the Highlands and beyond."
She added: "The Highland Rheumatology Unit provides specialist care, support and education for people who are suffering from a number of illnesses and is staffed by a specially trained team who are experts in their field and who are constantly working with their patients.
"To ask this team to then cope with patients with diverse and sometimes complex care needs is unacceptable and could potentially carry with it many risks for staff and service users. I feel NHS management have been short-sighted in their decision and need to seriously consider the risks and consequences of this decision."
An NHS Highland spokeswoman said: "We are using five of the Highland Rheumatology Unit beds as part of the Highland-wide response to increased pressure on services as a result of the impact of flu. This is a temporary measure.
"The specialist physiotherapists, occupational therapists and specialist nurses are supporting rheumatology patients both in the hospital and the community. The ward nursing team is being supported by additional staff including the advanced nurse practitioner who leads the general ward."