Like you, my family rely on the Friarage. From fixing broken bones to treating allergic reactions, the doctors and nurses at the hospital have been there for us, just like they have for thousands of you.
Given where we live just outside Northallerton, I drive past the Friarage almost every time I leave home. And since being elected as your MP, my highest priority has been to ensure the Friarage remains a strong local hospital.
So last week’s news was extremely disappointing to me personally.
It was also frustrating that this unwelcome change was sprung upon us suddenly by the South Tees NHS Trust. Because this change is not driven by money, but by recruitment and staffing issues which have been known about for a long time.
Indeed, I’ve been pressing the Trust on this specific issue for over a year, following a meeting I organised with medical staff in 2017. At my suggestion, the Trust agreed to improve its recruitment procedures, including looking overseas. Additionally, I identified a specialist doctor recruitment agency to help.
Regrettably, these measures have not solved the problem.
With so few doctors, the Trust felt the service was at risk of becoming unsafe and that is the reason for last week’s sudden announcement.
There is a larger pool of around 50 anaesthetists and 16 critical care consultants based at the James Cook, some of whom have been informally helping the Friarage for the past few months. I am grateful to them, especially as I recognise the pressures they face in Middlesbrough.
As many of you have suggested to me, I have consistently pushed the Trust to find ways to share these doctors permanently across both the James Cook and Friarage sites, given that they are part of the same Trust. I have been told that the doctors have been offered substantial incentives to work at the Friarage permanently but have chosen not to accept. I have also been told that the Trust cannot contractually roster these doctors to work permanently across both sites.
Part of the reason for this is that changes in clinical guidance from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine now require more specialist consultants to work in critical care.
Historically however, the Friarage has been staffed with generalist consultants who provide both anaesthesia and critical care. A handful of our flexible generalist consultants, essential for our small hospital, have recently retired. Generalists elsewhere these days believe it is not appropriate for them to cover critical care given the evolution in medical training and guidance.
And the specialist critical care doctors prefer to work at larger hospitals like the James Cook where there is higher activity compared to the low volumes of specialist work at the Friarage.
And that, in essence, is the problem.
What is clear is this: money is not the primary issue here. Finding what amounts to a handful of specific doctors to work at the Friarage is.
Going forward, my priority is to find a way to maintain our current A&E provision. But as I hope I have explained, there is no easy way to do this, nor is it within my control.
My understanding is that even with the temporary changes, around 9 out of 10 patients who currently use emergency services at the Friarage will still be able to do so.
But if these temporary arrangements do become permanent, I will fight for the following:
- More planned surgery (like hip and knee replacements) and more outpatient appointments to be carried out at the Friarage, saving many of you trips to James Cook.
- The Urgent Treatment Centre to treat ill children as well as adults. The current A&E does not do this.
- The Urgent Treatment Centre service to be available 24/7 rather than for only 12 hours, which is what the Trust originally planned.
- Patients sent to the James Cook should be returned to the Friarage as soon as appropriate.
- Supporting as many nurses as possible to remain working at the Friarage rather than transferring to James Cook.
I am also talking to Yorkshire Ambulance Service about the safe transport of patients, especially from the remote parts of our area, like the Dales.
I will continue to fight for an outcome which ensures a sustainable future for our much-loved local hospital. While I am not a medical professional, the NHS is in my blood. Both my parents dedicated their working lives to the health service and I am completely committed to ensuring your family can rely on the best possible hospital services, as close as possible to your home.