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HEALTH MATTERS: Here's exactly how you can help hard-working NHS Highland staff reduce waiting times and get best outcomes for everyone

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NHS Highland is working to reduce the amount of time people have to wait in hospital.
NHS Highland is working to reduce the amount of time people have to wait in hospital.

As chief officer for acute services at NHS Highland, I oversee activity at Raigmore and our rural general hospitals, writes Katherine Sutton. The colleagues working in these, both clinicians and the invaluable support staff, go above and beyond to look after people. This can be difficult when we have lots of patients needing urgent care and limited beds and people to look after them.

This is an exceptionally busy time for hospitals – not just in Highland but across Scotland and the UK. Covid is still very much with us, which can mean we need to close wards. There is a backlog in scheduled operations and treatments caused by pausing activity during lockdowns: although we prioritise the most urgent cases, some people will be waiting longer to be seen. And people’s conditions can also get worse while they are waiting, meaning they may need to stay longer in hospital.

All of this, combined with ongoing staff shortages, means we can sometimes find hospitals at or over capacity.When that happens, we need to move people with less urgent needs elsewhere, or bring in extra colleagues. But we are working to change this.

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We are part of a group called the NHS Scotland Urgent & Unscheduled Care Collaborative. Our ambition is to reduce the wait for patients to under four hours from arrival to admission, discharge, or transfer for 95 per cent per cent of attenders to our Emergency Department (ED), and to make sure nobody ever waits more than 12 hours. We know long waits are not just inconvenient but can also be harmful to health.

To achieve this, we will work with colleagues on wards to make sure we have as many beds available as possible, particularly out of hours. Using a model adapted from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, we will free up as many beds as possible earlier in the day, when we can discharge people in a planned way. This will give us more capacity to receive patients during the night without having to move people unexpectedly. It also means we can spread out the flow of patients, allowing us to plan ahead.

Katherine Sutton
Katherine Sutton

We tested this new system at the end of April and saw some early positive outcomes. We were able to move more patients before 2pm, get people onto specialist wards earlier and reduce 12-hour waits. We’ll be learning from this and repeating it, with the aim of improving our system. Ultimately, we want to make sure people are cared for in the right place at the right time. It’s just as important to get people home or to another caring environment where they can recuperate as it is to admit people who need urgent care: staying in hospital too long can slow people’s recovery.

There are two things you can do to help. If you have a loved one in hospital who is ready to come home, helping them to get home earlier in the day can make a real difference to other patients. So we’d ask family members to work with ward staff on earlier discharge times, and if you are an employer please consider letting employees have time off earlier in the day if they need to help someone home from hospital.

And if you or someone you care for needs urgent medical care that is not life-threatening, please call 111. 111 can refer you to a doctor, pharmacy or minor injury clinic, and if you do need to attend A&E they can pass on your details, saving time and possibly allowing you to be seen more quickly.

Thank you for your support.

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