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Lack of care 'shocking and disgraceful', says Caithness action group

By Gordon Calder

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THE standard of health care in Caithness has become "significantly worse" in recent months, local campaigners have claimed.

Caithness Health Action Team (Chat) has written to NHS Highland chief executive Iain Stewart to express its "profound disappointment" at the care provided in the far north.

It claims gynaecology procedures are now only being carried out in Raigmore, chemotherapy and renal dialysis clinics have been "severely reduced at very short notice to patients and staff", and the cataract eye scanner has been taken to Raigmore.

The campaign group also says mental health services are "virtually non-existent" and maintains its concerns have not been addressed despite assurances from Mr Stewart at a meeting in the summer.

Chat chairman Bill Fernie, in a letter written to the chief executive on behalf of the group, said: "We personally met with you in July this year and were promised that your priority was to have ‘clinics back locally’ with an assurance of person-centred care."

Bill Fernie of Caithness Health Action Team.
Bill Fernie of Caithness Health Action Team.

A programme was to be set up to help with orthodontic appointments, a detailed maternity risk assessment and guidance for pregnant women undertaken along with improved paediatric services, public notification about Dunbar Hospital minor injury unit closures and updates on the redesign of local health services, Mr Fernie said.

"Appallingly, over two months later not one of these concerns has been addressed. As a matter of fact, the situation with health care in Caithness has grown significantly worse.

"Our babies and young children are having to make 200-mile round trips to see a paediatrician. Mental health services are virtually non-existent for our community, with centralised services primarily provided by the third sector mostly in the Inverness area, even though we have among the highest number of male suicides in Scotland.

"Our cataract eye scanner has been removed to Raigmore and although local clinics for eye scans continue monthly in Caithness General Hospital, the reality is that this is not happening. People are not being told this can be done locally, or if they request it are told there will be a much longer wait for local treatment."

Mr Fernie claims the frequent closure of the Dunbar minor injury unit without prior notification is "unjust" and says there are no updates about the Caithness redesign "as promised".

He said: "We acknowledge that staffing issues are considered to be the main issue, but we would suggest that it is a case of crisis management within NHS Highland senior management team and also financial mismanagement by deliberately not filling vital posts as they become available, to try to alleviate your debt problem."

NHS Highland chief executive Iain Stewart.
NHS Highland chief executive Iain Stewart.

Mr Fernie added: "The people of Caithness would strongly suggest you have continued to target the most vulnerable and fragile members of our community – babies, women, children, the elderly and those suffering from cancer, renal failure and chronic illness. The severe detrimental impact of your lack of care for our fragile community is shocking and disgraceful.

"Caithness Health Action Team and the Caithness community request your attendance and members of your senior management team within NHS Highland to a public meeting in order to discuss our continued concerns about healthcare inequalities in Caithness and the impact this is having on our community."

NHS Highland said it is in discussion with Chat about its concerns. It has faced a number of particular challenges, mainly staffing pressures, but a spokesman said the services have been maintained "whenever it has been safe to do so".

He said: "The primary concern of the board is to ensure that the services provided are safe and sustainable. Where it has not been possible to maintain a full-time service, alternative arrangements have been made to satisfy patient demands pending resolution of the problems encountered and reinstatement of the full services.

"Specifically, in terms of ambulatory care, there have been adjustments to the service to deal with staffing pressures.These issues are being addressed and it is hoped these will be resolved within the next three months. NHS Highland can confirm that patients are still being treated in an ambulatory care setting in Caithness General Hospital."

Cataract clinics are held in Caithness on a monthly basis "to satisfy local demands", the spokesman said.

He added: "We remain committed to providing services as locally as possible."

NHS Highland chief executive Iain Stewart reaffirmed his commitment "to provide fair and equitable services for everyone in Caithness".

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