A health chief has defended reforms which could see the closure of South Tyneside District Hospital’s special baby unit.
The specialist service at the hospital in Harton Lane, South Shields, is due to be moved to Sunderland under South Tyneside Clinical Commissioning Group’s controversial Path to Excellence plans - leaving a midwife-led unit in South Tyneside.
The proposals have attracted strong criticism, including a formal letter of objection to the government and a legal challenge through the courts.
But Dr David Hambleton, chief executive of the South Tyneside Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), said tough were decisions needed to improve the overall health of the area.
He told the CCG’s annual general meeting: “Last year we talked about maternity services and I think we made the right decision.
“People were really passionate about maintaining the special baby care unit in South Tyneside but what determines having a healthy baby is not having a special baby unit.
“It’s things like whether the mother smokes during pregnancy.
“I understand why people are passionate, but it’s not the issue to be passionate about and we’re going to have really difficult discussion about what we would really like to spend our money on.”
The South Tyneside District Hospital special baby unit was forced into a temporary closure last year due to staff shortages.
Figures presented at the meeting showed South Tyneside performed well against national statistics in areas such as referral waits and cancer treatment times.
However, the borough still performs worse than the rest of the country for other mortality indicators.
More than half of the CCG’s budget goes on hospital care, mainly funding services at South Tyneside Hospital, but also more specialised services in Sunderland, Gateshead and Newcastle which are also accessed by patients from South Tyneside.
Dr Hambleton has said he wants to see a greater emphasis on preventative and lifestyle measures.
He told the meeting; “We’re in one of the worst parts of the country for mortality from heart disease and stroke – things which determine whether people die earlier, but not just die earlier, but also live with life-affecting illnesses.
“People say that’s because of our industrial heritage – that’s behind us.
“The things that underpin it is things that are more fundamental, it’s poverty, good housing, or jobs, friendships in our community and things like smoking and alcohol.
“If you want to keep doing what you’re doing we will have fantastic services – and people will still die 10 years before their time and pretty much in misery.”
James Harrison , Local Democracy Reporting Service