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National Health Service (Consultants)

General Questions – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:00 pm on 16th September 2004.

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Photo of Colin Fox Colin Fox SSP 2:00 pm, 16th September 2004

To ask the Scottish Executive how the shortage of national health service consultants is impacting on communities. (S2O-3159)

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

NHS boards seek to respond to short-term shortages in consultants in a way that has a minimal impact on communities, for example through the deployment of locum staff. NHS consultant numbers increased by 307 between 2000 and 2003 and continue to rise in line with the partnership agreement commitment to expand the number of consultants in Scotland.

Photo of Colin Fox Colin Fox SSP

As the minister knows, there are nearly 200 vacancies for NHS consultants in Scotland, 90 of which have been empty for six months or more. The minister will be well aware of the furore—that is the appropriate word—in West Lothian over the potential loss of services at St John's hospital, precisely because of the shortage of consultants there, which will mean that people will have to travel into Edinburgh. What new plans does the minister have to solve the acute and chronic shortage of consultants, in the short and the long term, given that previous plans have gone so seriously wrong?

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

There are problems in particular hospitals in particular specialties, some of which are to do with past defects of work-force planning. In the past, in certain specialties—radiology is one example—not enough people were put into the training process, which obviously should have started several years ago. However, the overall picture is of an increasing number of consultants and the commitment in the partnership agreement to provide 600 extra consultants represents an unprecedented growth in the consultant work force. That is the general picture, although of course I accept that there are difficulties in particular hospitals for particular specialties. Sometimes a reconfiguration of services is required to deal with the issue.

Photo of Nanette Milne Nanette Milne Conservative

I share concerns about the shortage of NHS consultants. What can the minister say about the interconnected problem of junior hospital doctors potentially spending less time on training, as a result of the European working time directive? I am sure that that will impact on communities.

Photo of Malcolm Chisholm Malcolm Chisholm Labour

We must, of course, comply with the working time directive, and everybody knows that it has had a major impact on the delivery of health services. That has been particularly true in the United Kingdom because, traditionally, all the countries within the United Kingdom have relied more on junior doctors than have other European countries. We must address the issue, which has implications for training, as Nanette Milne points out. We have a whole project called modernising medical careers, which is addressing the issue of doctors' training in the new age and in the new circumstances. Scotland is very much ahead of the field in its preparations. The guardians of standards in the training of doctors are confident that the requisite amount of training can be given within the new arrangements.