The downgrading of A&E and maternity services at Darlington Memorial Hospital is one option being considered under the NHS’s Better Health Programme(BHP).
But local leaders have expressed fears that such a move would result in patients in some of Yorkshire’s most rural communities having to travel 60 miles to James Cook hospital in Middlesborough for critical care.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Coun John Blackie, North Yorkshire county councillor for The Upper Dales. “James Cook is a good hospital but it’s too far away. It’s unacceptable. These patients, needing urgent, emergency care, where time does cost lives, are going to be in a very long queue.”
Coun Blackie said the move would leave the area with a “makeshift health system”.
Representatives from the Better Health Programme, looking to improve NHS provision, were invited to an area partnership meeting of the Upper Dales in Reeth last night to hear the views of the community over any potential changes.
Coun Blackie, who is also a Richmondshire district councillor and chairman of Hawes Parish Council, said residents were deeply concerned after the loss of consultant-led maternity and paediatric services at the Friarage Hospital in 2014.
“It’s huge distances,” he said. “If you’re in labour, 60 miles is a long way to go. I can name people who have given birth on their way to the Friarage Hospital, and that’s 35 miles away.
“We call it the land of the lay-by birth. It’s something that shouldn’t even be contemplated.”
The Darlington Memorial Hospital currently deals with nearly 60,000 A&E attendances annually, and more than 2,000 births.
Under the option being considered, patients in need of consultant-led, 24-hour emergency or maternity care would need to travel 60 miles, a journey which can take two hours on rural roads, Coun Blackie said.
The communities most affected would be in the Upper Dales, Wensleydale and Swaledale, Darlington, Richmondshire, North Hambleton, Northallerton and Thirsk.
“When the Friarage lost its consultant led 24-hour maternity and paediatric service we were told that there would always be Darlington,” said Coun Blackie. “We’ve clearly been let down.
“This seems to be purely an exercise in NHS wishful thinking, cost-cutting in the extreme at all our expense in terms of the immediate access to healthcare services we need to be immediately available, often to save your life or the life of a baby about to be born, and its mother.
“Frankly it appears the BHP has lost touch with reality, and the NHS seems to have taken leave of their senses.”
A spokesman for BHP said: “The safety of patients and the quality of care they receive is at the heart of the better health programme, and we are spending a lot of time talking to people about how services are provided.
“Issues such as transport and distance and the capacity of hospitals will be key issues in deciding how services should be provided in the future.
“North Yorkshire patients are already taken to James Cook following heart attacks, strokes, and serious injuries, and the evidence shows that going to a specialist centre to get expert care saves lives and reduces long term disability.”
“However, no decisions have been made, and any changes will be subject to public consultation.”