New figures of weekend medics still ‘unacceptable’

Michael Matheson. Picture: Lisa McPhillips
Michael Matheson. Picture: Lisa McPhillips
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THE number of doctors working at Lothian hospitals at weekends has been branded inadequate, even after health bosses were forced to issue an apology for wrongly saying just 25 medics were at work throughout the region on Saturdays and Sundays.

Information issued to the Scottish Labour Party by NHS Lothian under Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation had stated that the tiny number of medical staff had been working over the weekend of August 31, a figure which was angrily dismissed as “a load of baloney” by public health minister Michael Matheson when it was raised at Holyrood last week.

The health board today admitted the figure had been incorrect, blaming an “administrative error”.

Mr Matheson has since written to Labour Lothians MSP and his party’s health spokesman Neil Findlay stating that in fact more than 60 consultants provide cover every Saturday and Sunday, boosted by more than 100 on-call, trainee and non-consultant grade doctors. However, this remains a fraction of the medical staff which NHS Lothian has during weekdays and was branded “unacceptable” by Mr Findlay. The health board today admitted it is looking at boosting staff numbers at weekends.

Mr Findlay said: “It’s ludicrous that Michael Matheson thinks this is acceptable. In the chamber he described the evidence uncovered by Labour on the NHS Lothian weekend staffing as ‘utter nonsense’ and claimed I was giving ‘misleading information’.

“I think he owes me an apology as these figures show that the availability of medical staff at weekends is well below a level anyone would deem acceptable in one of Scotland’s busiest health boards.”

It is understood the FoI 
response, which had included a caveat stating that the medical staffing figure may not have been completely accurate due to the way it had been calculated, had been approved by SNP councillor and former West Lothian council leader Peter Johnston in his role as an NHS Lothian board member before being issued to Labour.

NHS Lothian medical director Dr David Farquharson personally issued an apology to Mr Findlay, after the misleading figures, which were also quoted by Labour leader Johann Lamont at First Minister’s Questions last month, sparked what has become a growing row.

The health board had said that the figure supplied in relation to staff at work on weekdays also “did not come close” to the actual total. A new system for checking FoI requests has been adopted, with Dr Farquharson admitting that the officer checking the response had missed an “obvious error”.

Dr Farquharson later told the Evening News: “A detailed review of availability and working patterns of all types of medical staff across all our sites at weekends is under way.

“Patient safety is our top priority and the exact number of doctors on any one site at any one time will be determined by the level of activity and specialist needs of patients. We recognise that in order to continue to provide sustainable, quality healthcare we need to do some things differently.

“As part of this work we are looking at options for increasing capacity within planned or elective care. This may include the provision of some non-emergency surgery and diagnostic tests seven days a week and would result in an increase in the number of medical staff working at weekends.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said that while round-the-clock care was already provided by the health service, it wanted to “accelerate the pace of change, by targeting enhanced weekend and out-of-hours services”.

She added: “There will always be variations in staffing levels at the weekend compared to the rest of the week. However, we want to ensure that all the services you need are on hand at the point they are needed to optimise patient care.”