Highlands & Islands - Patient Travel – Rhoda gives an update

20 September 2016

Highlands & Islands MSP Rhoda Grant, who has previously raised her concerns about reports that island NHS Boards were considering making patients take the ferry instead of flying to appointments on the mainland due to a review of travel subsidies.

Health officials in the Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney islands have previously admitted transport budgets will be cut as they try to make millions of pounds of savings.

The subsidised travel service provides a vital link between islanders and hospitals on the mainland as well as enabling them to attend appointments.

It has been reported that in the Shetland Islands, where Health Managers are having to slash the £2.9 million budget by a sixth, a consultation is to be launched on patient travel.

Rhoda , speaking last month said,

“I would urge caution before taking this proposed action.

“A patient, accompanied or not, can in many cases fly to the mainland for an appointment and return to the island the same day.

“This is far more unlikely to happen if they have to utilise ferries, so there will be knock on costs related to overnight stays and other associated costs for example mileage, or public transport costs.”

“Allied to this, the one key element relating to these proposals that seems to have been overlooked, is patient care.

“How cared for is an elderly person going to feel when they have to undertake a long ferry trip whilst they are in poor health?”

Speaking this morning Rhoda said “ I wrote to the Health Boards covering our island communities and asked them what their plans were for patient travel and also I asked if the Government have provided sufficient funding to cover patient transport, as this cost has now been rolled up as part of their annual settlement from Government.

“I understand that our island NHS Boards work together on what is called the Highlands & Islands Travel Scheme.

“All the Boards are now required to make efficiency savings and as I understand from NHS Shetland and NHS Western Isles (Response from NHS Orkney still awaited) they are looking at different options for achieving these savings.”

“In particular I was concerned about the reports that patients were going to be encouraged to travel by ferry rather than flight.

“However NHS Western Isles have stated that air travel remains the most efficient mode of transport for the Western Isles overall, with few exceptions, although in some inter island cases, ferry is the only option.

“NHS Shetland have advised they are looking at a number of options, the main one being reducing the need for patients to travel at all by relocating services from the Scottish mainland to Shetland alongside greater use of tele-health.

“This Board are also looking at ways they can reduce patient escorts, which are responsible for 30% of such journey’s.

“They admit they are making it clear to patients that they can travel by ferry if they wish, but at this stage there are no plans to make travel by ferry the default position.”

Rhoda continued:

“I know that any changes will cause concern but I would urge Health Boards to make decisions based on quality patient care rather than budgets.

“I also hope they have an eye to false economies where a person’s care could be compromised without the support of an escort or by having to undertake a long journey.

“I believe Boards should be looking at better use of telemedicine, but recognise that clinicians in mainland Health Boards would be required to embrace this technology in order to make a step change in patient care.

“Telemedicine has the advantage of allowing patients to receive care very close to home and is also a more efficient use of resources.

“Much of the feedback I have received from patients highlights their frustration at having to travel long distances for five minute appointments that could easily have been carried out by video link.

“We need to put patients at the centre of these decisions and listen to their voices.

“I hope this update gives some reassurance to the constituents on our islands, however they should respond to the Health Boards’ consultation on this matter.

“I will also be keeping a close eye on the issue.”