A Freedom of Information (FOI) request obtained by community campaign group Save Our Acute Services (SOAS) has revealed the Western Trust was informed of the risks of removing emergency surgical care from the South West Acute Hospital (SWAH) prior to withdrawing the service.
The information also reveals that the Department of Health’s Strategic Planning and Performance Group (SPPG) suggested the Trust should plug the new elective overnight care centre at the SWAH as a way of countering the negative media coverage that removing the life saving surgery service from the hospital would inevitably generate.
The FOI disclosure was published by SOAS on its social media page this afternoon, showing a communication from the SPPG to the Trust in November, prior to the removal of the service in early December.
It stated the Trust had been liaising with the SPPG on the proposal to withdraw emergency general surgery from the SWAH.
“There are a number of inherent risks in ceasing emergency surgery at the SWAH,” it said.
It stated that these risks included:
– An increase in pressure on both Altnagelvin and Craigavon hospitals due to having to treat patients who would otherwise be treated at the SWAH;
– Patients having to travel further to receive emergency surgical care;
– An increase in pressure on the NI Ambulance Service who will have to convey patients over longer distances;
– The impact on the ability to recruit into substantive consultant surgical posts;
– Potential negative media coverage.
With regard its last point, the communication added, “While it is expected that this form of urgent service change will generate negative media coverage, future plans to put in an elective overnight stay centre at the SWAH could counter the tone of the current and future media coverage.”
While the above points regarding patients safety due to travelling distance, and the impact on other receiving hospitals and on the ambulance service, have been well voiced by local campaigners regarding the removal of the surgery service, in the months since the communication was sent both the Western Trust and officials from the Department of Health have repeatedly told the local community at various public events that such concerns were unfounded, or said they had been mitigated.
For example, at a major Council meeting following the Trust’s announcement of the removal of the service, officials from both the Trust and the Department told the elected representatives that local patients could expect “better outcomes” if they travelled to larger hospitals for treatment, including for emergency care.
The Trust has also repeatedly dismissed claims that travelling further than an hour for emergency treatment increased the risk to patients, stating the term “golden hour” was long outdated.
When the Trust announced the removal of the service in November, it explained it had been forced to do so for safety reasons due to chronic staff shortages on the SWAH emergency surgery rota. While it stated this was a temporary move, it has also stressed it has been unsuccessful in recruiting new general surgeons for the hospital.
Read the Trust’s full statement from November here.
A public consultation on the issue closed earlier this month.
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