Controversial changes at a rural Yorkshire hospital could leave services at risk of continuing staff shortages, experts have warned.
Health chiefs have launched a consultation over a programme designed to safeguard the future of Northallerton’s Friarage Hospital for the next 10-15 years.
But an independent report by senior clinicians says shortfalls in key staff could still affect the provision of care for local people even after changes are put in place.
Under the plans, an urgent treatment centre will formally replace the hospital’s A&E service which was halted in March amid a staffing crisis which also led to the withdrawal of three critical care beds.
Consultation on future of Friarage Hospital branded 'worst of the year'
The report for local health chiefs by the Yorkshire and Humber Clinical Senate says the changes are a “step in the right direction towards providing a sustainable future for the Friarage”.
However, it warns the “main risk to your proposal remains the workforce or rather the lack of it”, particularly in anaesthetics, critical care and the need to maintain numbers of doctors and nurses required to deliver services.
“The workforce challenges remain a significant concern to the senate,” it says.
The report says assurances are needed that hospitals in Middlesbrough and Darlington can increase staffing to provide additional services for patients requiring critical care amid continuing national specialist shortages.
It also raises concerns over the recruitment of GPs and specialist nurses to the Friarage’s planned urgent treatment centre including “the ability to staff the unit and maintain the staff skills”.
“Whilst this model alleviates some of the staffing pressures, your ability to recruit and maintain the workforce remains the key concern to the senate and is the key risk to the sustainability of your proposal,” it says.
Standing up for Friarage Hospital and rural healthcare in Yorkshire
NHS leaders in the Hambleton and Richmondshire say their plans will ensure the sustainability of services at the Friarage for the next 10-15 years.
Decisions over the future shape of services are due to be made early next year following a public consultation.
Prior to the changes, fewer than 19,000 patients a year used A&E at the hospital, the smallest of any unit in England, which is run by South Tees NHS trust.
Around nine in 10 patients attending A&E have continued to be seen there.
Health chiefs are consulting on two options for the urgent treatment centre to be open 24 hours or closed between midnight and 8am, which would save around £250,000 a year. Figures from April and June indicate around three people on average seek help in the eight hours to 8am.
Another independent report ordered by local MP Rishi Sunak into the future of the hospital also warned delivering the new treatment centre is dependent on staffing.
“The trust needs to have an increased focus on developing existing nurses as emergency nurse practitioners and recruiting new staff as required,” it said.
“Without this, there is a risk that opening hours of the urgent treatment centre may need to be reduced leading to the Friarage Hospital only being able to care for 70-80 per cent of its current A&E patients as opposed to the 90 per cent.”
Hambleton, Richmondshire and Whitby Clinical Commissioning Group, which is carrying out the consultation, said it had taken on board the comments from the senate which was supportive of the clinical model put forward.
“While we are acutely aware of the staffing challenges within the NHS at this time, we firmly believe the proposed clinical model we are currently consulting on will deliver sustainability for the Friarage now and in the future,” it added.