Charlie Elphicke: Put hospitals back in hands of local people

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THERE are more than 300 community hospitals in England. They are deeply rooted in their local communities and provide great support and personal services.

They are well supported by Leagues of Friends who work tirelessly to raise funds and improve services and equipment in those hospitals still further. They provide treatment that is much closer to home than many other health facilities, and they have a personal, caring approach that is not always possible in large, busy, acute hospitals.

Community hospitals such as the one I represent in Deal in my constituency in Kent have a real role in the future of the NHS. They provide cheaper care beds than an acute hospital can provide; they are a good basing for community services and a potential engine for bringing together health and social care in our community. They relieve the bed blocking pressure on busy acute hospitals where beds are often scarce. They do intermediate care – step up, step down, end-of-life care, palliative care – very well. It is better to have care that is local and more cost-effective, and such hospitals are well positioned to help with an ageing population.

Community hospitals up and down the land provide diverse services. My hospital serves a population of 36,000, and services include minor injuries, diagnostics such as X-rays, care beds, antenatal care, mental health support, community clinics for cardiac nurses, sexual health, baby clinics, eye tests, dietary advice, and even a dental suite. Out-patient clinics are also provided.

Sadly, the local acute trust wants to withdraw those services, but my case is that where patients – particularly elderly patients – find it hard to travel, we must be more understanding with our out-patient services, and more careful to provide them locally. With an ageing population and people who find it hard to travel long distances, it is important that we can carry out more local services in our community hospitals.

With the transfer of many community hospitals to the NHS PropCo, many were worried – at least in Deal, and more widely – that the hospital would close. I ran a campaign to save the hospital that saw 2,500 local households – that is 20 per cent – answer a survey, and more than 400 people pack into a public meeting. Those institutions are cared about deeply. People care about community hospitals; they want to save them and to know they have a secure future.

I believe that communities should be able to own their hospitals if they wish. Many will ask, “How we can possibly allow that? How can people in local communities have responsibility to look after a community hospital?

My answer is simple: many, possibly most, community hospitals were founded by public subscription in local community trusts. As people did it then, so they could again. I think we can trust our communities to run hospitals properly and competently, and history teaches us that they did it very well in the past.

Why should we not have community hospitals back in local ownership? Why cannot community trusts take back those hospitals and social enterprises?

Whether it is the Big Society, localism, Labour’s co-operative movement – call it what we will – it amounts to the same concept, idea and ideal. Why cannot GPs take up the management and have right of admission, as they used to? This is a concern up and down the land. There are clever people up and down the land, as well as brilliant Leagues of Friends who do much good work.

That is my case. It goes far and wide and is supported by many colleagues.

Let communities own their own hospitals again and enable them to take responsibility. Let them feel that the future is something they are part of, rather than something that happens to them.

Give them shared responsibility in the planning of local health care and coping with an ageing population. I believe that with ideas, innovation and ownership, communities will be able to help drive the changes that the NHS needs to succeed in the future.

• Charlie Elphicke is a Conservative MP who has introduced a Bill calling for cottage hospitals to be community-owned.