NHS chiefs have raised concerns over the future of an “incredibly vulnerable” paediatric unit which they admitted was staffed on “a wing and a prayer”.
The 14-bed ward at St John’s Hospital, which provides inpatient and day care for children up to 13 years old in West Lothian and the west of Edinburgh, has been the subject of downgrades and closures over the past three years due to staffing shortages.
Jim Crombie, chief officer of acute hospital services, told an NHS Lothian board meeting yesterday that the unit at the Livingston hospital was heavily reliant on staff taking on extra night and weekend shifts as only four out of nine ‘out-of-hours’ slots were filled on a substantive basis.
Mr Crombie said: “If I have said before that the unit was vulnerable, now I would say it is incredibly vulnerable.”
He added the problems had been going on for more than three years, as the ward was closed to admissions for three weeks in July 2012 due to a severe shortage of trainee doctors.
When the ward was closed patients would need to be referred to the Sick Kids Hospital in Edinburgh for treatment.
Mr Crombie said: “This is an incredibly dedicated workforce who have committed themselves to the safe provision of care. But over the last few weeks my feeling has been that they are tired now.”
He promised that two positions would be advertised shortly, to reduce the need for locum staff.
Concerns were raised by members that the shortages were subjecting staff to impossible pressure which could compromise patient care.
The health board must put patient safety first, insisted NHS Lothian chief executive Tim Davison, who told members that there were tough choices ahead on the future of the paediatric unit.
Mr Davison said: “We can’t keep a unit open unless it is safely staffed. What you are saying is for three years we have had a vulnerable situation which has not improved.
“There have been times recently when we have staffed the unit on a wing and a prayer.”
Services at St John’s must be resolved rather than “lurching from crisis to crisis”, warned Lothian MSP Neil Findlay. He said: “Paediatric care at St Johns appears to be perpetually facing a staffing crisis, with staff shortages and reliance on locums all too common.
“Children’s services are far too important to be organised in this way – people in West Lothian deserve and expect a fully functioning and fully staffed paediatric unit.”
Closure of the unit would have a “terrible” impact on West Lothian residents, said Ellen Glass, spokeswoman for the Action to Save St John’s Hospital group.
She added: “People in this area can be more deprived and to get to the Sick Kids can be expensive and difficult for people.”