As the lockdown restrictions on hospitals and GPs are eased the top priority for NHS Highland and the Scottish Government must be dealing with the treatment backlog.
What is only now becoming clear is the scale of the challenge that faces NHS Highland as they remobilise and recover.
The latest figures from Public Health Scotland (PHS) show that between March and May 2019, 4,128 planned operations took place in the Highlands. During the same period a year later, when lockdown was at its most restrictive, only 1,024 were completed - that’s a seventy-five per cent reduction.
No one can doubt that both the UK and Scottish Governments made the right decision by implementing a nationwide lockdown; nevertheless, we are now learning the true impact it has had on our country’s physical health.
As the figures from PHS show, it is likely that 3,000 patients across the Highlands have seen their treatment altered, postponed or cancelled.
I have already made calls for the Scottish Government to ensure cancer screenings, diagnosis and operations are remobilised as a matter of urgency in light of Cancer Research UK’s campaign to secure safe spaces for cancer treatment.
When I questioned the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport on what assistance she was making available to support cancer services, she confirmed that NHS Highland will receive an additional £645,000.
Whilst I welcome this extra funding, I am concerned about the resources NHS Highland has at its disposal to reduce the backlog of operations.
After years of centralising health services into Raigmore there is now a huge pressure on the Hospital to deliver treatment at a time when social distancing measures mean the number of beds in each ward have been reduced by around a third. Less beds mean less operations and that means more patients who are left waiting longer for treatment and, consequentially, the backlog will increase.
NHS Highland’s ability to reduce the operations backlog would have been boosted had the North of Scotland Elective Care Centre been constructed on time and ready to open in August 2021. However, this project has been beset by delays and the earliest it can be operational in August 2022 - over a year late.
Therefore, with less beds in Raigmore Hospital and an elective care centre that won’t be ready until 2022, NHS Highland needs to think seriously about how it can reduce waiting times.
Now is surely the time to consider reopening wards in our local hospitals in Invergordon and Golspie. Failing that perhaps we need to look at temporary patient accommodation being built in Raigmore. We need to do all we can to increase bed spaces to allow Highlanders to get the treatment they are waiting for.
NHS Highland has some difficult decisions to make and I will continue to press the health board for answers to ensure that every patient receives the treatment they have waited so long for. Time is not on our or their side.
**Article originally published in the Inverness Courier, 7 August 2020.