Anne McIntosh: My family were country GPs. Don’t forget health needs of rural areas

What can be done to improve the NHS in rural areas?
What can be done to improve the NHS in rural areas?
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MY father and my brother were country GPs and my uncle was a surgeon. They devoted their working lives to the National Heath Service.

My father was one of the first NHS GPs in 1948. In the days when home visits were the norm, he worked on duty, on call every second night and every second weekend. Whatever the weather, Dr Mac would be there to look after the patient. I yield to no one in my admiration for those who work at every level in the health service.

I would like to look at ways of enhancing the long-term sustainability of the NHS, particularly in rural areas.

I work with the board of the Dispensing Doctors’ Association. Its national headquarters are in Kirkbymoorside in North Yorkshire.

I recognise the great work that such doctors do dispensing in sparsely populated rural areas that are not well served by community pharmacies.

Undoubtedly, providing all public services, not least healthcare, in rural areas is more challenging and more expensive, and it is not generally recognised in NHS funding.

There are further challenges, such as the lack of good access to rural broadband. It is important to acknowledge that it is very difficult for those practising in rural areas to access NHS Digital.

I refer, for example, ​to the electronic prescription service, which is a particular challenge in rural areas. It seems bizarre that at the moment the health service seems to be putting more money into allowing patients to access wi-fi in the waiting room before a GP consultation than into beefing up the broadband available to rural GPs.

Historically, Conservatives in government have always emphasised rurality and sparsity factors in funding and delivering healthcare.

Given the vast areas that GP practices cover and the often long distances patients have to travel to general hospitals, community hospitals play a central role in delivering healthcare in rural areas.

It is a matter of anger – tinged with sadness – that a decision was taken by the local clinical commissioning group to close the Lambert Hospital in Thirsk temporarily, then permanently. More recently, NHS Property Services has decided to sell the site on which the hospital is situated.

In terms of delivering healthcare locally, this is a retrograde step. To the local community, selling a facility that was gifted to the people of Thirsk and surrounding villages in perpetuity by the Lambert family is ethically and morally questionable. In my view, it is indefensible. It was a fantastic facility, offering step-up, step-down rehab after a fall, stroke or operation, making patients safe before they returned home.

I seek an assurance from the Minister that he will either intervene, block the sale of the site and permit the Lambert site to be converted into a health hub for the local community, which is what GPs in Thirsk are requesting, or ensure that the proceeds of the sale are returned and used for healthcare in Thirsk.

I welcome the idea of a Royal Commission to look at sustainable, long-term funding for the NHS, particularly if it were against a background of cross-party consensus.

Such a commission would be a wonderful opportunity to review the balance of spending in favour of primary care, particularly in rural areas where costs are higher owing to rurality and the sparsity of the population.

I favour the model of GPs working in partnership, but we face a ticking timebomb. A number of GPs face retirement over the next five to seven years, and fewer want the responsibility of being partners. It is not just that positions are difficult to fill in London; they are difficult to fill in rural areas too.

Where, therefore, is the Parliamentary scrutiny and accountability of NHS England and NHS Property Services? They operate independently of government and appear totally unaccountable to Parliament.

I am aware of the mandate agreed between the Department of Health and Social ​Care and NHS England, but I question where the adequate Parliamentary scrutiny is. For the sustainability of general practice and with a view to allocating more funds to delivering healthcare in rural areas, 
the balance between rural and urban areas should be addressed as a matter 
of urgency.

Enabling GPs to treat patients swiftly after appointments at their surgery would prevent an increasing dependence on admissions to accident and emergency departments and prevent a troubling ailment becoming acute.

Anne McIntosh is a Tory peer and former MP for Thirsk and Malton. She spoke in a House of Lords debate on NHS funding – this is an edited version.