NHS Highland (Rheumatology Service)

Question Time — Scottish Executive — Health and Wellbeing – in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 14th January 2010.

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Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party 2:15 pm, 14th January 2010

To ask the Scottish Government what progress has been made in discussions with NHS Highland to ensure the provision of a seven-day rheumatology service in Dingwall providing specialist facilities to the whole national health service board area. (S3O-9079)

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I apologise to members for my rapidly disappearing voice. You will be pleased to note, Presiding Officer, that that will lead to shorter answers than normal today.

A review of the rheumatology service across Highland, which includes the Highland rheumatology unit at Dingwall, is currently under way. The review is at an early stage and no decisions have been made. The issue was raised with me at the board's annual review on 7 December, and I have asked the board to keep me informed of progress.

Photo of Rob Gibson Rob Gibson Scottish National Party

Does the cabinet secretary agree that NHS Highland is indulging in sharp practice in using an efficiency savings drive in the mid-Highland community health partnership to remove four of the 14 beds at the Dingwall rheumatology unit while conducting a whole health board review of the service that may take longer than this financial year? Does she also agree that NHS Highland should clarify what efforts it is making to offer relief to as many patients as possible who want to use that well-loved unit, which has welcomed patients from all over the Highlands and the Western Isles?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

I can inform Rob Gibson that I have received information on the matter from NHS Highland and reassure him that the decision on beds—to which I will return in a second—in no way pre-empts the wider review of the rheumatology service to which I referred.

NHS Highland has made a temporary move, until the end of the financial year, to reduce the number of beds from 14 to 10. It has advised me that the beds in Dingwall were underoccupied, with the average occupancy rate being 70 per cent. Because the service operates mostly on the basis of planned admissions, it is possible—indeed, it is the best use of resources—for it to operate at near full capacity. I am also advised that the change allows the operation of a new day-case service for patients who need infusion therapy. Currently, those patients have to travel to Inverness.

Members will appreciate that, in the current economic climate, the Government has taken steps to protect the NHS budget into the next financial year. Nevertheless, all NHS boards are required to ensure that they use funds efficiently, which means using funds to deliver the best quality of service to patients. I note the points that Rob Gibson has made and ask him to accept my reassurance that the decisions that have been made in the short term in no way pre-empt the longer-term review.