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NHS: Specialist Services in Remote Areas

Volume 794: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what work is being carried out within the National Health Service to improve access to specialist services in areas which are remote from main hospitals.

My Lords, despite the temperature, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, NHS England, which is responsible for overseeing the commissioning of specialised services, is committed to considering the centralisation of such services, such as stroke provision, where it will raise clinical standards and improve outcomes. However, in doing so, NHS England is bound by its statutory duty to reduce health inequalities, including for people living in remote areas. A series of adjustments to funding allocations for clinical commissioning groups are designed to deliver that obligation.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer. As the Minister indicated, many specialist treatments and emergency admissions now take place in major hospitals for patient safety and better outcomes, but what about the communities that are 50 miles or more from those hospitals? Some patients must travel for three or four hours at a time for follow-up consultations and treatment. Does the Minister recognise that, in remote areas, community hospitals need to provide a wider-than-usual range of services and treatments—such as the chemotherapy we have in Berwick—including follow-up consultations, examinations and radiography, using modern technology to link the patient to the clinician at the distant hospital?

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord that while it is important to specialise those services because they have been demonstrated to deliver better outcomes, we need to make sure that ancillary services can be delivered as close to the community as possible. In preparing for this Question, I was delighted to see that Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and the county council are building a new hospital in Berwick to provide that sort of care. That is welcome, but we also need to make sure that we protect community hospitals elsewhere in the country and that they can continue to deliver out-of-hospital care.

My Lords, there is one important way in which patients in remote parts of the country can access specialist care: telemedicine. It is quite easy to send X-ray pictures, scans and blood test results online, and even to interview patients. I send things via WhatsApp to my children almost every other day. It is entirely possible for me to do that on my iPhone; surely the NHS can do it too. I understand that Wales has managed to do it quite well. Is it possible for us to do the same in England?

The noble Lord is right. Of course it is possible for us to do it in England; it is happening all over the country. Telemedicine offers fantastic opportunities, such as Skype-based GP consultations. Indeed, there is the example of Morecambe Bay’s remote clinician pilots in a variety of specialisms, such as gastroenterology and mental health care. Clearly, that is important. I point the noble Lord to the tech vision published by my relatively new Secretary of State this autumn, which points out the massive potential for digital health in reducing these kinds of inequalities.

Within limits, a shifted out-patient model allows specialists to provide the same kind of consultations, investigations and procedures as in regular settings. Does the Minister not think a possible way forward would be to develop larger PCTs, as they would be more financially able and therefore have the capacity to provide that service in areas remote from the hospitals?

My noble friend makes an excellent point. The number of CCGs is reducing over time, as they tend to merge. Of course, they are increasingly coming together into integrated care systems, which cover a larger geographic community. Every one of those makes sure that people have not only community care but specialist care available.

My Lords, how many of the 3 million people who face the closure of their general practice in the coming year are in remote areas where they have a long way to travel to a hospital? What do the Government plan to do to ensure that some form of health service is available to those people? Telehealth can help, but people often need an examination.

The noble Baroness is quite right. There is an urgent need to recruit more GPs. We continue to be committed to that. I am sure she will be pleased to hear there are more GPs in training than there ever have been. We are also providing a £20,000 salary supplement to GPs who go and practise in rural areas.

As the noble Baroness said, there are occasions when a patient needs to see a specialist, but travelling to access specialist services is especially difficult for those on low incomes. What is NHS England doing to advertise the healthcare travel costs scheme to patients in rural areas? Do the Government hold information on how many eligible patients are claiming?

There are a number of schemes, as the noble Baroness points out. As well as the travel costs scheme, there is the low-income scheme. They are designed to help people with those kinds of costs. I do not have the specific numbers about take-up, but I shall certainly write to her with those.

The Minister is correct to highlight the building of new hospitals, but these are no good if you cannot attract staff to them. Can he comment on the pilot scheme in west Cumbria which is training senior nurses to undertake the work of some junior doctors? How successful has that been, and how many students will take part in the second year of the course, which starts in January? What plans do the Government have to increase the number of staff right across the health service?

I shall look at the scheme the noble Lord mentions and would be delighted to follow up with him directly on that. We need more staff; we have more NHS staff than we did in 2010, but nevertheless we need more GPs and nurses. Of course, we also need to diversify the workforce in new ways. One of the most exciting innovations in the workforce sphere recently is the creation of several thousand nursing associate posts to support nurses and doctors in a range of settings.

My Lords, I declare my interest as chairman of UCLPartners. The provision of centralised specialist services is predicated on the basis that there is an appropriate mechanism for integrated care across the tertiary, secondary and primary care institutions. Are Her Majesty’s Government satisfied that the regulatory framework to assess the quality of that care exists? If not, what mechanisms are being put in place to ensure regulation across integrated care pathways?

The noble Lord makes an excellent point with great insight, as ever. We all want to move to an integrated care system which allows us to worry less about levels of care and think instead about patients and the care around them. We believe a lot can be done within the current regulatory framework but, when the Prime Minister asked the NHS to produce its long-term plan in return for the significant funding increase we are giving, she asked what legislation might be needed to complete that framework.

My Lords, as president of the Spinal Injuries Association, I ask the Minister if he is aware of the terrible state of spinal injury specialised hospitals, which do not have enough beds. Is he aware that the association and our fundraisers have privately employed two specialised nurses to help the hospitals which do not have expert help available?

I am of course concerned by the point the noble Baroness makes. She has raised it with me privately. I absolutely applaud the work that the association has done but I will come back to her about our specific plans on how to make improvements.