Healthcare changes in Northumberland accelerated by pandemic, say chiefs

Two of the key directions of travel for healthcare were accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, health chiefs have said.

Friday, 17th July 2020, 6:00 am
Dr Jeremy Rushmer, medical director at the Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital near Cramlington.

Representatives of Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, which runs hospitals in Northumberland and North Tyneside, and NHS Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), which buys and plans the county’s healthcare, presented on their response to Covid-19 at the Tuesday, July 14, meeting of Northumberland County Council’s health and wellbeing committee.

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Among the issues highlighted were the increasing use of appointments and consultations through non-face-to-face means and the development of the Primary Care Networks (PCNs) – groups of GP practices working together for economies of scale and to deliver additional services. Both are key elements of the new NHS Long-Term Plan.

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Siobhan Brown, the CCG’s chief operating officer, told the meeting that Covid-19 ‘has been an incredible opportunity’ for the PCNs, of which there are six up and running in Northumberland – North; West; Wansbeck; Blyth; Cramlington and Seaton Valley; and Valens (based on the existing partnership covering the Morpeth, Ashington and Cramlington areas) – with the largest two in the rural north and west covering around 80,000 patients each.

“They have really found their way and we hope that going forward, they only become stronger and stronger,” she said.

Ms Brown also explained that while overall contacts with primary care were down by around 30% during the height of the pandemic, telephone and online appointments increased by 60%.

She described this as something to build upon, while noting that the CCG needs to ‘make sure there aren’t unintended consequences of that’.

Northumbria Healthcare’s executive medical director, Dr Jeremy Rushmer, also reflected on the ‘huge shift to digital communications for outpatients’, with 8,000 telephone and video consultations taking place in the last few months.

However, committee chairman, Coun Jeff Watson, said he was ‘sceptical’ about what to read into this, given that people were using these technologies during the pandemic because they had to.

Dr Rushmer pointed out that it was appropriate to look at for certain circumstances, particularly in a large rural county like Northumberland, giving as an example someone travelling down from Berwick to Wansbeck General Hospital for a blood test and a 10-minute chat with a doctor.

He added that detailed patient satisfaction data would be used to help the trust see how it can provide services in the best possible way.

Coun Watson accepted that it was right that ‘certain cases could be done digitally and certain ones can’t’.

At the same meeting, Derry Nugent, project coordinator of Healthwatch Northumberland, which represents the views of patients, also talked about how the organisation had started using online forums during the pandemic.

She said that this would continue and be developed into the future, although it would not be a ‘dash to digital’, recognising that the technology does not suit everyone or every situation.

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