A scathing assessment of planned changes to health services in South Tyneside has been delivered by local councillors – just weeks ahead of a final decision.
Council chiefs tasked with scrutinising the proposals have expressed concern about the plans and the overall consultation exercise.
They say they are worried about the possible switch of maternity and special care baby services to Sunderland.
In particular, they question if hospitals there and in neighbouring areas could deal with additional demand.
They are also seeking assurances that patient safety will not be compromised by the removal of round-the-clock children’s emergency care.
For stroke care, which may also move out of the borough, they are calling for evidence that services will be improved.
The joint South Tyneside and Sunderland council scrutiny committee said it was time health bosses sat up and listened to what the public and their own staff were saying.
They even warn they can refer the proposals to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt if they are not satisfied with the final outcome.
South Tyneside councillor Rob Dix, co-committee chairman, said: “We believe failure to involve staff in the development of these proposals was a missed opportunity that could have provided reality checks from operational staff on the ground.
“There also remain serious concerns about the consultation as a whole.
“Much of the information presented by the South Tyneside and Sunderland Healthcare Group, CCGs and North East Commissioning Support was complex, confusing and lacked clarity.
“We would encourage decision-makers to listen to the feedback given by patients and local people, whose views should be at the very heart of the decision-making process.”
Other concerns include travel difficulties for patients and visitors from South Tyneside getting to Sunderland.
The committee said it also had serious concerns about the consultation process, which was “complex, confusing and lacked clarity”.
And it expressed concern at evidence from South Tyneside District Hospital staff that they felt they had not been involved in the planning and development of the plans.
The proposals are contained in Path to Excellence, a consultation aiming to adapt health care in South Tyneside and Sunderland to meet unprecedented financial and recruitment challenges.
It has been formulated by Sunderland and South Tyneside clinical commission groups (CCGs).
Health bosses hit back at criticism
South Tyneside health bosses have hit back at the scrutiny committee’s concerns, describing criticism of the Path to Excellence consultation at such a late stage as “very disappointing”.
Dr David Hambleton, accountable officer for NHS South Tyneside Clinical Commissioning Group, said there had been 11 scrutiny meetings with councillors since April 2016.
He said: “We have made every effort to respond to the questions and comments, with information including expert evidence from regional and national doctors and nurses to provide assurance about the options being proposed.
“During around 30 hours of scrutiny discussions, we’ve listened carefully to councillors’ concerns and many of these are reflected in their final response.
“We will take the committee’s comments, as well as feedback from the public consultation, into account when making final decisions about the future of these important NHS services.”
But he added; “However, after 20 months of discussions we were surprised to hear for the first time that the committee has concerns about the consultation process itself.
“The committee’s interim response to the consultation in October 2017 described the consultation as ‘robust’ and welcomed the involvement of the independent Consultation Institute in helping ensure that the Path to Excellence’s follows the very best consultation practice.
“The response also praised the co-operation and commitment of key staff from the NHS who have provided the Joint Health Scrutiny Committee with the information and evidence requested on numerous occasions and remarked that this has certainly helped the committee in its endeavours.
“It’s very disappointing to hear these comments about the consultation itself being raised at this very late stage as we would have been happy to work with the committee to make any adjustments they felt were needed.”