Flagship walk-in health centres slashed

Dr Richard Vautrey
Dr Richard Vautrey
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HEALTH chiefs have cut services at a third of flagship NHS walk-in centres in Yorkshire despite soaring demand by patients for immediate access to GP care.

A Yorkshire Post survey calculates 25,000 patients each month use the 14 remaining centres in the region opened by Labour under a multi-million-pound programme launched in 2008 to improve access to GPs mainly in deprived areas.

The centre in Bradford this month became the latest to cut its opening times, joining surgeries in Halifax, Todmorden and Dewsbury which have reduced their hours. Discussions are under way to pilot reduced opening at the Scunthorpe surgery. The service in Barnsley was axed altogether a year ago and a separate walk-in service aimed at commuters in Leeds city centre which was opened under a separate initiative also shut last month.

Health chiefs struggling to make cuts in NHS spending are being forced to re-examine the future of the centres due to soaring demand for on-the-spot appointments.

Leeds GP Richard Vautrey, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee, said he believed the days of access centres “were numbered”.

“We have been opposed to them from the start because a one-size-fits-all solution was unjustifiable. In some areas it was appropriate to develop extra capacity but in others it wasn’t needed and money would have been better invested in existing practices,” he said.

“What we have seen with the access centres is that they have seen patients much earlier in their illness dealing with minor coughs and colds and sore throats which would have resolved themselves.

“There’s a balance to be struck between very swift access and meaningful clinical access. Every practice does their level best for patients who genuinely do need to be seen urgently.”

Figures show demand is running at around double the level originally expected at centres in Hull, Scarborough and Scunthorpe but in Bridlington it is around four times higher.

The most heavily-used surgery is in Broad Lane, Sheffield, where 5,150 patients use the city centre practice each month for walk-in services which will cost £3m to run in 2011-12. Demand has increased by 40 per cent since April following the closure of a walk-in service at the city’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital.

About 3,600 patients a month use the Rotherham centre and nearly 3,100 visit the surgery in Wakefield, nearly double the original monthly estimate.

Health chiefs in Calderdale had expected about 650 patients a month to use centres in Halifax and Todmorden but figures for 2010-11 showed 1,500 had appointments. Opening hours were cut in April and numbers have since fallen to the monthly target.

Since December 1, the walk-in centre in Barkerend, Bradford, has been open for six hours a day from 2pm following checks which showed some patients were using the surgery to seek a second opinion, leaving the NHS to pay double for the same service, while others complained they could get no appointments at their own practices, with demand running at three times that expected.

In Bridlington, officials say they are considering widening the role of the centre to provide a minor injuries service. Extra bank holiday opening is also expected in Wakefield.

The Dewsbury surgery was closed to walk-in patients on weekday mornings a year ago because of soaring costs. Numbers have fallen to 1,000 a month from more than 2,500 since April.

In Barnsley, the walk-in service, which saw four times the expected demand, was axed in October 2010 amid huge extra costs. A GP surgery on the same site for registered patients closed last month even though health chiefs admitted there was “no doubt it has proved a success in meeting patient demand for GP services”.