Fears as hospital merger plan revealed

HEALTH chiefs last night denied the cash-strapped West Suffolk Hospital could close if an "option" to merge it with Addenbrooke's in Cambridge goes ahead.

HEALTH chiefs last night denied the cash-strapped West Suffolk Hospital could close if an "option" to merge it with Addenbrooke's in Cambridge goes ahead.

The EADT has learned the merger option has been looked into by hospital bosses who are trying to reduce a £20million debt.

Last night, leading consultants predicted a bleak future for the hospital in Bury St Edmunds if such a merger - creating a "super-hospital" in Cambridge - ever went ahead.

But Chris Bown, chief executive of the West Suffolk Hospital NHS Trust, stressed there was "absolutely no plan" to close it.

The revelations plunged Suffolk's already beleaguered health services into deeper crisis. The threat of closure hangs over several smaller hospitals in the county and nursing staff, wards and theatres are being axed.

Senior doctor John Urquhart yesterday revealed senior consultants had "grave concerns" about the move - proposed as a possible way to ease the crippling debt engulfing the West Suffolk Hospitals NHS Trust, which serves a population area of almost 300,000 people.

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Dr Urquhart, a consultant in anaesthesia and intensive care at the hospital for eight years, told the EADT: "We are all desperately worried about the current situation and the current plans.

"We want to find a way out of this but we have the greatest reservations about any merger proposals. If this happens, I think there is a very real threat to the hospital as it would not be an equal partnership.

"We have looked at the closure plans to hospitals in Sudbury and we fear we could become Cambridge's own Sudbury - even though I can't allow myself to believe the hospital could close.

"The reasons behind the proposals are purely financial and we feel there has to be clear clinical reasons for us to support them."

Members of the Medical Staff Committee - an independent group of consultants at the troubled hospital - held an emergency meeting this week with Mr Bown to discuss ways of solving the financial crisis.

"Although there has been no closure talks at the moment, merging with Addenbrooke's has been described as an option and we might see a difference as early as 2007," said Dr Urquhart, who chairs the committee.

"We all recognise there is a major financial problem but we will not sanction anything which diminishes health services in the community. We are willing to explore any option but only with this proviso.

"We would look into the merger plans but we will not support them if they put patients in west Suffolk at an disadvantage.

"It is no good just taking £15 million from the economy and merging, there has to be a clinical advantage. And the difficulty I am having is that I can't see any advantage."

Dr Urquhart, 44, a doctor for 20 years, has now urged residents and community leaders to make their opinions known to safeguard the future of the 680-bed hospital.

He said: "We all know the interval between an accident happening and getting medical care is a major predictor in the outcome of any accident.

"I am worried about the situation we find ourselves in but I don't see how the health service can make such a massive decision without the support of the senior doctors that run it.

"But we also need the support of the people in Suffolk who must write to their MP and say what they think. Public opinion can sway politicians and make them change their minds and if enough people make their feelings known, we might see a sensible outcome."

Dr Urquhart said the financial problems could have been solved if coveted foundation trust status had been approved for the hospital earlier this year.

"The status gives organisations more freedom and empowers them to borrow money. I doubt very much if we would be talking about any merger if we could have secured trust status - and we came very close," he said.

"We have been told the Government want fewer but bigger hospitals but the population is growing very quickly and the idea that we might lose the hospital is completely absurd.

"The whole community deserves a decent hospital and leading doctors come to the West Suffolk because the level of quality care we provide is quite outstanding. I think we attract excellent staff because we are one of the most cohesive, patient-centred hospitals I have ever experienced."

Mr Bown played down any closure fears and said a merger was only one option currently being looked at to stave off the massive debt.

He said: "We are looking at all options through a corporate strategy plan and, in my opinion, any merger would have to make clinical sense - and not just done for purely financial reasons.

"There is absolutely no plan to close the West Suffolk. Who knows what will happen in the next few years and we might have to make changes depending on clinical practices and new drugs and equipment.

"Nationally there is a greater emphasis on care in the community but there will certainly be no closure of the hospital."

A spokesman for Addenbrooke's said: "We are aware that the West Suffolk Hospital is considering number of options for its future. However, we have no further details on any proposed changes at this stage."

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