BEDS are set to be lost at a leading North East general hospital as a result of a national drive to cut costs across the NHS, it emerged last night.
Health union chiefs claim as many as 100 beds could go across Gateshead Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which operates Gateshead’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital along with smaller community health centres.
But health officials insisted the changes, introduced in response to the new national operating framework for 2010-11, would improve patient care.
Unison officials said they understood the acute stroke ward and part of the surgical ward would be affected along with the endocrinology unit, which deals with hormone disorders.
The rheumatology and haematology wards, could also see a reduction in bed numbers, they say.
It is thought the changes will take place from April, and staff and union representatives claimed they have been kept in the dark about the cuts and fear they will affect patients and hit jobs.
Last night, Gateshead Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust confirmed beds at the hospital were being reduced as a direct result of the new operating framework from the Department of Health, which focuses on offering more services at home and in the community.
But Ian Renwick, chief executive at the QE, said not only were talks with staff ongoing, but he insisted the move would improve patient care and offer more choice. He cited the Trust’s strong track record in improving patient care and the use of different models of delivering care.
"People who have traditionally come into hospital for some services can now be looked after in centres closer to their homes and our QE Metro Riverside Centre facility is such an example," he said.
"This provides a wide range of different outpatient clinics, tests and scans."
Mr Renwick said: "Over the last year our trend towards day case surgery increased from 65% to 77%. This is better for patients as they spend less time in a hospital bed and can recover at home. We have a nationally acclaimed Rapid Recovery Programme in orthopaedics which has resulted in a reduction in length of stay from 11 days to four days so far. Again, patients have fed back that they prefer a shorter stay in hospital with appropriate community support.
"As a consequence of these, and other initiatives, the Trust has already begun to reduce the number of beds on the QE site. The Trust will need to continue its plans for modernisation and improvement in response to the challenges set out in the Operating Framework. Our track record, supported by the commitment of our staff, leaves us well placed to meet those challenges."
It is believed the acute stroke ward is merging with the stroke rehabilitation unit, the endocrinlogy, rheumatology and haematology ward is moving to the general medicine and procedure investigation unit, and part of the surgical ward is closing.
Unison branch secretary, Maddy Nettleship, said the hospital’s Staff Side committee – which represents all hospital staff – was opposed to the ward closures. She said: "Staff Side abhor the bed closures that will start to happen from April. Although management at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital are trying to put a positive spin on the closures, such as it will ‘improve patient pathways’, we are certain that the closures will severely affect patient care.
"We are in no doubt that these closures will result in job losses and will impact greatly on the services that the Gateshead Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust can provide for the people of Gateshead.
"Management at the Trust have not consulted with ourselves nor with Gateshead residents about the closures. Indeed, we only became aware of them by rumour initially."
She added: "This scenario is part of the drive by Government to turn hospitals into big businesses and run them as factories and part of the drive to privatisation. Staff Side have pledged to do all in our power to oppose these closures and stand with the staff of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital and residents of Gateshead to safeguard the future of the NHS in Gateshead."
The ward closures follow last year’s announcement that the hospital’s laundry service will shut later this year, resulting in 74 potential job losses.
Blaydon MP Dave Anderson said: "I was not aware any changes were being made to wards at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. It would be respectful if myself and residents were not kept in the dark about the plans.
"I will be wanting to get in touch with those in charge to find out what the exact situation is and what affect it is likely to have on patient care. At present I am concerned patients and staff will be negatively affected by the number of beds being reduced."
Page 3 - High-quality care is the key priority for NHS >>
High-quality care is the key priority for NHS
THE Operating Framework for the NHS is produced every year by Government, and sets out the key priorities and actions for all NHS organisations in England for the coming year.
The framework published for 2010/11 is regarded as pivotal, because the NHS is required to identify several billion pounds of cost efficiencies by the end of 2013/14.
Running through this is the theme that quality is to be the driving force of change, and the NHS will be expected to deliver higher quality with lower overheads.
As outlined by Health Secretary Andy Burnham when he visited the North East last week, plans are being put in place for increased dialysis at home and chemotherapy in the community, with the aim of giving patients more convenient and efficient services.
Other measures include providing services at home for children and young people who have acute or long-term conditions, or disability or palliative care needs, and giving more people the option to die at home if they wish.
Ian Dalton, chief executive, NHS North East, said: “As detailed in NHS North East’s 10-year vision – Our vision, our future – we are continuing to make further improvements to health services.
“We want to ensure every North East patient has access to the highest-quality care, with the best possible outcome for their health, every time they use our services.
“Patients tell us they want convenient access to a wider range of services in the community and the Department of Health’s policy is increasingly focused on moving even more services out of hospital and closer to patients’ homes.
“It is particularly important we do this in the North East because, although our hospitals are rated as best in the country, we know this region is too reliant on hospital-based care.
“Doctors tell us not all treatments which currently take place in hospital need to do so.
“Many people could have care or treatment closer to home in the first place, which is much more convenient for them, or they can be discharged earlier as long as the right services are available in the community.
“North East primary care trusts have been working hard over the last few years to provide innovative, high-quality services in locations such as health centres and patients’ homes.
“There are already some good examples across the region of how millions of pounds worth of investment has improved outcomes for patients.
“For example, through using the latest equipment, technology and drugs to provide more community or home-based care for people with long-term health conditions, such as heart disease, breathing problems or diabetes; individuals who have disabilities and those who need end of life care.
“We need to do even more of this and also look at the best ways of strengthening coordination between different parts of the health system, to ensure ‘seamless’ care or treatment so patients and staff experience fewer obstacles and a more efficient service.”