Children’s ward at risk as staffing hits breaking point

St John's Hospital in Livingston. Picture: Ian Georgeson
St John's Hospital in Livingston. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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A GROUP of consultants has warned health chiefs that a severe staff shortage is putting safety at risk on a Lothian children’s ward.

In a leaked letter, the six paediatric consultants told NHS Lothian the situation had become so bad that they may not be able to keep running the department at St John’s Hospital in Livingston.

The leak comes after it emerged the health board was to stop sending paediatric trainees to the hospital from April, a move senior sources said could bring an end to the department.

Campaigners for the hospital fear it could signal the latest in a line of cutbacks.

NHS Lothian today admitted managers had found it “impossible” to fill posts in West Lothian, however despite the withdrawal of trainees, it said it was still committed to children’s care at the hospital.

In the letter to NHS Lothian medical director Dr David Farquharson, the consultants wrote: “We are now concerned that we cannot guarantee continuity of care and safe clinical care at all times of the day and night.”

In previous years, up to eight trainee paediatric specialists would be sent to St John’s.

In more recent times that has been drawn back to four, but if they are taken away altogether that would leave six consultants to run the ward alone.

There are fears that could lead to the closure of the ward, or at least a reduction in hours, shutting at weekends and outwith office hours.

As well as concerns about paediatrics, there are additional concerns any cutbacks could impact on other departments at the hospital.

The maternity unit and the accident and emergency ward are both dependent on staff from paediatrics to provide follow-on care.

A senior source told the Evening News: “Breaking point has been reached, and it’s been coming.

“This won’t only affect the paediatric ward, it will have an impact across the entire hospital.

“It was very much a last resort for the consultants.”

A spokesman from campaign group Action to Save St John’s said: “Clearly the NHS have been relying on the dedication and goodwill of consultants.

“That was never sustainable, and their failure to address this issue has compounded an already difficult situation.

“We were facing a major difficulty. If the lack of trainees caused serious concerns about the safety of service delivery, their withdrawal from April is now a crisis.”

A joint statement from Dr Farquharson and NHS Education Scotland’s Professor Bill Reid said: “NHS Education for Scotland recently informed NHS Lothian of their decision to withdraw paediatric trainees from St John’s from early April.

“The recent unprecedented gaps in rotas, outwith our control, have meant that these senior trainees have had to be moved to other units.

“From April 11, until the staffing position improves significantly, no senior trainees will be sent to St John’s, other than for community child health purposes.

“Over the past three years we have made a number of attempts to recruit paediatric doctors, however a shortage of experienced paediatricians has made it difficult to fill advertised posts.

“A recent recruitment campaign to fill four consultant paediatrician posts and four consultant neonatologist posts to support out-of-hours work at St John’s attracted a very small number of applicants to the extent that it will be impossible to fill them all.

“In addition to recruitment, we have made changes to existing consultant staff’s job plans to include evening sessions and have increased the number of advance nurse practitioners to give us more options for providing continuity of care.”