Bill Presented — Infrastructure (Financial Assistance) Bill
Sarah Wollaston (Totnes, Conservative)
I thank my hon. Friend for making that important point. Quite often patients are not aware of the full range of services available in their community hospitals. We can do far better in signposting them. It is also important that GPs understand and support those services and make referrals to the right place.
The second issue I would like the Minister to address is the community hospital estate. She will be aware that many community hospitals around the country are being pushed into ownership by NHS Property Services. However, there are examples around the country of community hospitals that are owned by their communities, for example, or by a social enterprise. If those hospitals are unable to have ownership of their premises, that can hold them back if they have ambitions to expand their roles in future. Obviously we want to reassure the public that these valuable community assets remain in public ownership, as it were, but we also want to ensure more flexibility in their ownership model. I would therefore be grateful if the Minister addressed that point.
Thirdly, there is an accountability issue. There are occasions where having multiple providers operating out of a community hospital can cause confusion. Situations can arise where, because everybody is responsible, nobody is responsible, and accountability can end up being shunted around the system. Does the Minister agree that it would make more sense to have a single body, or even individual, with overall responsibility for what happens to patients and the way in which care is organised in a community hospital?
Fourthly, I want to raise an important point that goes beyond community hospitals to the whole way in which we look at a primary care based system, namely the looming crisis in general practice numbers. For the first time we now have a vacancy rate for GPs of 12% in the south-west. On top of that, in about four or five years we will have a retirement bulge—I am afraid that I have not helped the situation—and we are also moving, quite rightly, from a three-year period for general practitioner training to a four-year period. All that coming together means that across the country, the south-west included, we will face a shortage of skilled practitioners both to deliver commissioning and to staff our community hospitals. We need their support. It would be a great shame if GPs who were enthusiastic about getting involved in commissioning and helping out in their community hospitals were unable to do so because of their clinical
commitments. Can the Minister therefore update the House on how we are going to stop the problem, which has been going on for years, of too many medical students going into training in acute hospital specialties? We need more of them to go into general practice.
Finally, will the Minister support the Community Hospitals Association? It does a tremendous job. In 2008 it received a £20,000 grant to help set up a detailed database that documented not only where community hospitals are but what they do. At this time of change I hope she agrees that it is particularly important that we keep track of what they are doing. The CHA has also highlighted innovation and helped to spread best practice, so I hope that she will give it further support.
No debate about community hospitals would be complete without thanking the leagues of friends, which around the country have provided millions of pounds. They do not provide luxuries; we are talking about major building projects, equipment, funds for care, volunteers who come into the hospital—an extraordinary level of support. We could not manage without them in our community hospitals. I know that the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to our leagues of friends.
This is a call to arms to people listening to the debate. If you value your community hospital, let your GPs know, let your commissioners know, let HealthWatch know, let your local health and wellbeing boards know. If we want community hospitals to be treasured, as we all do in the House, we need to make that very clear.