Suffolk Health faces radical shake up

THE year 2002 is bringing radical changes to the health service – including the abolition of Suffolk Health authority.In the week that the new health bosses meet in London, Health and Social Services Editor Tracey Sparling sees how more decisions will be made at a local level to benefit patients.

THE year 2002 is bringing radical changes to the health service – including the abolition of Suffolk Health authority.

In the week that the new health bosses meet in London, Health and Social Services Editor Tracey Sparling sees how more decisions will be made at a local level to benefit patients.

But does a new regional boss mean the voice of Suffolk will be lost?

IT'S time for a revamp of the NHS.

By April 1, Suffolk Health, which controls our local health services, will cease to exist as we know it.

No longer will the directors sit round the boardroom table at their Foxhall Road base in Ipswich, holding the purse strings for our hospitals and ambulances, and trying to provide the best health service they can afford.

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Instead, our county's seven Primary Care Groups – which plan and buy health services like doctors and dentists – have become independent Primary Care Trusts and gearing up to inherit some of Suffolk Health's old roles.

The Government's idea is to shift the hand of power downwards, so PCTs will control three quarters of NHS funding in their area.

There will be five in Suffolk, including: Ipswich, chaired by Lilian Power from Bramford – a psychologist by profession, former head of counselling at Suffolk College and former Suffolk Health vice chairman.

Suffolk West will be chaired by former Suffolk health chairwoman Joanna Spicer, Central Suffolk by Brian Parrott of Holbrook, Suffolk Coastal by Tony Robinson from Felixstowe, and Waveney by former Suffolk Health non-executive director Jane Hore.

Local control of a budget in excess of £100million, will mean services should be decided by frontline staff and based more around patients. For example, ambulance and hospital services will be funded by the PCTs whose staff know the area and its needs.

Lilian Power is excited at the prospect of Suffolk Health 'growing into' a new form, and is convinced it is time for a change.

She said: "This is absolutely the right thing to be doing and it has been good to see so many people involved getting excited."

But, she added: "People do wonder whether the changes will mean anything and if there will be enough money to do it, and whether in the end it will be the same old story. I say let's give it a try, seize the opportunity and do it collectively.

"Most people do think the NHS is wonderful, but a lot of people are feeling as though things are not happening. All manner of things are in fact going on but have yet to come to fruition. We want to take the load off the hospitals and make life better for local people."

She said funding looks secure for a 20-bed unit and GP complex at Ravenswood to take elderly 'bedblockers," and a coronary heart disease drive is getting people motivated to do fun exercise like linedancing which fits into their lives.

There is also a project to see what Stoke Park residents feel are issues of concern – including crime – and what facilities need to change.

She said: "Suffolk Health could never have attempted such a wide ranging project, and the PCTs will have far more powers than Suffolk Health ever had.

"Suffolk Health and PCGs established a sound footing for us to build on, and a good dialogue with other agencies, but it's rather like a family – the grandparents don't live forever and the children grow up and take ideas further forward."

The new priorities include:

Reducing hospital waiting lists,

Looking after people with acute needs like cancer and heart problems,

Caring for the elderly and mentally ill close to home,

Building the morale of NHS staff by listening to their ideas,

Joining up with other organisations like Suffolk County Council much more.

But Lilian said: "We are very strapped for cash. The Government has put a lot of money in but demands are going up and there is a backlog of things which haven't been done.

"There are also new initiatives the Government says we must do, and for good reasons, but the amount of money is very limited and we will have to find new and creative ways to do things. That's why the emphasis needs to be on staff morale. If people feel good about their job that's when they get ideas and are enthusiastic enough to put things into practice."

Lilian also welcomes ideas from patients, and said: "When people are chatting they often say 'This is a crazy way of doing things. Why don't they change the system and do it this way – it'd be so much easier' and it's those ideas we want to hear.

"Sometimes people don't know the complexities involved, but quite often they may be on the right track."

She added: "People want a more seamless service, they want to know who to contact, and who can sort out any problems they may have. That person should then be able to unlock the social services budget, or the health budget and use it."

Above these trusts, will be a Strategic Health Authority covering Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, and based in Cambridge.

This will be one of 30 Strategic Health Authorities, each covering 1.5 million people.

As the Star revealed last August, our new SHA will be led by a new regional director.

That will be Peter Houghton, currently regional director of the Cambridge-based NHS Eastern Regional Office, a post he has held since 1998 and the chairman will be Stuart Francis . They all met with Lilian this month > in London.

By 2003, there will also be regional directors of health and social care. David Nicholson, previously NHS Executive regional director, will take on this role for the Midlands and Eastern region.

So although more decisions will be made locally by PCTs, the reins will ultimately be held miles away and there are fears that the voice of Suffolk will be lost.

Mr Houghton may work miles from Ipswich, but he knows the danger of organisations becoming over centralised only too well, because he was a leader in the public inquiry which said the East Anglian Ambulance Trust had become over centralised in 1999.

Lilian agreed a Suffolk voice was still crucial.

She said: "We will need to have an umbrella for Suffolk, as we develop the PCTs and need to co-ordinate what each is doing."

Central, Coastal and Ipswich PCTs would work together on some issues like funding ambulances and hospitals, and some countywide services would be led by one PCT.

"But we will still need more co-ordination than that," she said.

In fact, the changes are so complex and so vast, that a newsletter is being published every month in order to keep NHS staff informed about what is happening.

It is an uncertain time, as most staff at regional NHS offices, health authorities, community trusts and primary care organisations, will have to move to new organisations by April.

Geoff Reason, UNISON officer said: "Shifting the balance of power means that more influence can be wielded at a more local level on healthcare provision.

"But in the short term it means a great deal of uncertainty for NHS staff affected by the change. Our job is to remove as much of the uncertainty as we can, and provide jobs in the new organisations that take advantage of their skills and commitment."

Lilian said: "It is a time of acute dislocation for all staff. Most are not going to be sure about their role for quite some time, but we desperately want to keep their expertise."

Their skills could well prove to be the key for success for this new venture, which aims to change the shape of local health services forever.