Election 2021: Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch candidates tell us how they would tackle some of the challenges of delivering healthcare in the Highlands
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The pandemic has illustrated both the strengths and the weaknesses in the healthcare system in the Highlands. Though staff are routinely praised for their dedication, many locals are concerned about the lack of facilities outside of Inverness. So the NHS tries to restart services to pre-pandemic levels – what is the future of healthcare in the Highlands? Here is what the Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch candidates had to say.
John Erskine, Scottish Labour Candidate
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Scotland’s NHS and social care systems were struggling. Nurses and doctors repeatedly warned about the under-resourcing of the health service; social care workers were stretched to breaking point and a key sign of a healthy society – how long we live – was stalling and going into reverse for the poorest among us.
Now Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch and the Highlands and Islands regionally faces the twin challenges of recovering from the very immediate crisis created by Covid-19, but also recovering our NHS from a decade of mounting problems.
I want the next Scottish Government to restart our NHS after the pandemic by investing in the facilities and staff needed to tackle the backlog and strengthen services for the longer term.
Healthcare should be accessible locally to people where they live, and we need to move away from the centralisation of services to Inverness which can lead to long journeys and increased anxiety and stress for patients.
It’s clear that challenges remain around recruiting and retaining health and care staff in rural areas and I support the development of additional training facilities in the region to develop our homegrown skills and attract more people to work in our area.
Getting our NHS and care services in the region working again is going to require a collective effort and we have a plan to tackle the waiting list backlog, improve mental health and build a social care system fit for purpose.
We can’t go back to the old arguments and it’s clear that only Scottish Labour will prioritise a covid recovery for the region and the rebuilding of our health and care services across the Highlands and Islands.
Use both votes for Labour on May 6th for a National Recovery Plan for the region and a better opposition.
Kate Forbes, SNP Candidate
My fundamental approach to healthcare is that as many services as possible should be delivered as locally as possible. That means that our rural general hospitals, in Fort William or Skye, or our other local hospitals, like the Ross Memorial in Dingwall, should be bolstered with clinical staff and equipment to care for general healthcare needs. I’ve worked hard over the last five years to restore or establish services in local hospitals, like dialysis provision in Skye. I strongly oppose any assumption that Raigmore or Inverness should be the main and only hub serving the Highlands’ healthcare needs. Our NHS board is of course NHS Highland and not just NHS Inverness.
However, I do also recognise that certain acute services can only be delivered by specialists working in hubs. That is why we are working to build a new elective centre in Inverness, to reduce the pressure on Raigmore and ensure patients are not waiting too long to be seen. I think that local and regional hospitals and surgeries need to work very closely together. Some have described it as a ‘hub and spoke’ model so that the need to travel is reduced unless essential.
The pandemic has illustrated how important our health and social care services are. Our commitment to the NHS is to increase frontline NHS spending by at least 20 per cent over the next five years, and ensure half of the total budget is invested in community and primary care. We’ll also ensure that every GP practice, no matter where they are in the constituency, has access to a dedicated mental health link worker. We’ve committed to roll out more mobile health services to improve the provision of direct care in rural areas, including additional mental health services.
Jamie Halcro Johnston, Scottish Conservative Candidate
When the National Health Service was founded it was on the basis it would “meet the needs of everyone”, a comprehensive system free at the point of use.
Three and a half decades earlier, the Highlands and Islands Medical Service had been established, recognising the unique challenges of delivering healthcare in our region.
In many ways, we’ve been at the forefront of advances in things like telehealth, using technology to overcome distance.
But in truth, we all know the benefits of having good quality local facilities too. Yet across Scotland cost-cutting has driven NHS boards toward centralisation: services moved to more distant hubs, local facilities threatened.
In the Highlands we need an NHS that is accessible. Where basic, everyday services can be delivered in our communities without lengthy journeys by air, ferry or road.
Our growing older population will need these services nearby – as well as a social care system that meets the challenges of the future.
And we shouldn’t have to tolerate lengthy delays, like those over the long-overdue construction of the New Belford.
The NHS has shown its ability to meet challenges. It will rightly require investment to face the problems of tomorrow. But, above all, we need to start local.
Denis Rixson, Scottish Liberal Democrat Candidate
I’m not a medical person so write from the point of view of a consumer – a distant, rural consumer, 40 miles from a small general hospital, 100 miles from a big one. I’ve had operations and out-patient clinics in each. What am I, and most other consumers, looking for? We want the expertise, yes, but we want it local. Are these two irreconcilable? No!
We all understand that for major interventions it is impractical to have lots of expensive equipment duplicated throughout the Highlands. For acute cases we may have to transfer to one of a small number of super-hospitals. But much Healthcare is not critical or emergency. In those situations we do not want to have all patients travelling. I remember a physician at a small local hospital telling us about the growing imbalance between the human resources available at the largest Highland hospital and its rural counterparts. Patients don’t want that. They want services to be accessible. Our healthcare model should suit our environment. We are not Glasgow or London.
Our GPs have enormous areas to cover. What can be decentralised of other health services should be. Yes, I can see the efficiencies achievable by increasing centralisation. But every step towards centralisation is a step further away from the people you serve. (NB the present Scottish Government)! This is not an economic service that is on offer; it’s a health service. We don’t deal with products – but people. And if we don’t provide local healthcare there will be social and personal costs. So use technology to link us more easily, defray expense and reduce travel. After a year of Covid, online platforms are second nature to many of us. Let’s use them for first consultations and non-urgent appointments. It’s good for our health and that of the planet.