There is good news for supporters of Shaftesbury’s Westminster Memorial Hospital. Dorset Healthcare’s board has voted to retain the existing fifteen hospital beds there. Additionally, Shaftesbury Town Council has secured a ‘first refusal’ opportunity for the community to bid for the hospital site if it is ever put up for sale.
Last night, League of Friends of Westminster Memorial Hospital members and trustees gathered in the Town Hall. Dorset Healthcare Locality Manager Sara Froud revealed the latest developments in the long campaign to save Shaftesbury’s hospital beds. The Trust made a decision at its meeting on 31st July.
“Dorset Healthcare board will recommend to NHS Dorset CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) that the beds remain within the hospital for the foreseeable future, or until there’s a material change within the local market,” Sara said.
I asked Sara what ‘a material change’ meant. “Rather than putting a definite date and saying we will leave the beds alone for five years, we didn’t want to put a time frame on it. I think that causes anxiety. We’re now saying if there is an alternative provision, we can then revisit it. That could be in five years, ten years or twenty years,” said Sara.
Matron Helen Lawes had earlier explained that the average number of beds for a small hospital is 24. Shaftesbury has 15 beds. Sara doesn’t believe that this lower number puts the Shaftesbury beds at risk. “I don’t think it is a problem because I think it’s not just about the beds now. It’s about all the other services that are wrapped up with them, the advanced practitioners and how we deliver care differently. It’s fine. We’re managing it and will continue to do that so long as we got the right resources. That means people, not necessarily money,” said Helen.
Sara was pleased to make the announcement. “I think it’s great news,” she said. But League of Friends Chairman Julian Prichard cautioned that Dorset NHS Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) still needs to say ‘yes’ to Dorset Healthcare’s proposal to keep the beds.
“This is not quite the end. It just means that Dorset Healthcare believe that beds are best placed in the clinical environment. Their report will now go to Dorset CCG, who caused all this disturbance in the first place with their clinical services review. I hope that they will take this report on board. If they do, that’ll put the issue of the beds to rest,” said Julian.
“I imagine their original reason was for cost-saving,” he continued. “The only cost savings are from reducing the number of beds from 15 to 12 and putting the beds in nursing homes. It’s been proven that the difference in the cost of a bed in the hospital or nursing home is minimal if you add in the extra costs of physios and occupational therapists. It’s been proven that it’s not a saving for them.”
Neither Julian or Sara would try and second-guess the CCG decision, but Julian didn’t feel that the NHS funders would relish a rematch with North Dorset locals. “They had a lot of trouble with the ‘Save Our Beds’ campaign. I don’t think they want to risk starting that again,” he said.
After Sara and Helen’s presentations, Julian paid tribute to the hospital team’s impressive outcomes. “We have one of the lowest stay periods of any hospital in the area. I think it averages 20 days. Elsewhere, many are on 35 days, so we’re also doing something right. Let’s keep the beds where they are,” he said.
The second significant announcement of the night could help ensure that the hospital site remains in community ownership if it is put on the market. Shaftesbury Town Council has secured ‘Asset of Community Value’ status for the hospital from Dorset Council. Lester Taylor had started this procedure when he was a Town councillor.
“If in the next five years, Dorset Healthcare decided they wanted to sell the hospital, they have to give the community six months to find the money to buy it. It’s the first refusal to buy it for the first six months,” said Julian Prichard.
The community group might be outbid, but they would have time to raise funds to try and keep the hospital building as a community asset. The vendors would not be compelled to sell it to the community group after six months, though.
Julian believes that the Westminster Memorial Hospital site isn’t as appealing to developers as many locals might think and that impacts on the land’s value. “I think it is worth considerably less than the majority of people think. It’s certainly under £2 million,” said Julian, who added that the restrictions on the land and spaces adjacent to the hospital site limit its commercial potential. “It is an historic site. It’s got a listed building. You wouldn’t be able to encroach on Park Walk, because that’s another ancient historic site. The number of properties and the height of the properties would be very restricted. It would restrict any developer’s profits,” he said.
Julian, who is also a Shaftesbury Town councillor, would expect the Town Council to reapply for the Asset of Community Value protection when this first five-year term expires. And you shouldn’t be concerned that this reveals a plan to sell the site. Julian says this is a precautionary measure and he hasn’t heard anything to suggest the hospital will close.
“Sara from Dorset Healthcare said that the beds are protected, in the best place and putting them into nursing homes is not going to save much money at all, if any. I’m glad their report states that the best place for the beds is in a hospital and in a clinical environment. There is no money in the pot to build another hub and North Dorset needs this hospital in whatever state it is in. I’ve been assured that it’s in the best place, in Shaftesbury,” said Julian
Sara Froud told the meeting that she wanted to quash any suggestions that a new hospital site will be sought. “I think that Dorset Healthcare made it very clear that the NHS does not have those sorts of funds for a small community hospital,” said Julian. “She’s estimated (build costs) between £30m and £40m once the land is purchased, so that’s something that the Friends couldn’t afford. There’s no reason why the Friends couldn’t fundraise over time to rebuild a wing of the hospital – between £2m and £4m – and modernise it that way.”
The Friends have significant financial resources. The meeting heard that they can access £1,056,000. Julian says some of that cash might go towards improvements in hospital site access and provide more parking. “That money will disappear very quickly when it requires us to buy land for parking or whatever else we might need to do to increase the access. The idea will be to change our investment by buying land and property rather than necessarily spending the money. There will be some money involved in adapting whatever it is we buy,” he said, adding, “That’s all in the strategy but it’s not happened yet.”
Whilst many locals support the Friends’ work in improving the patient experience, some residents may question why Friends’ money should pay for NHS infrastructure. “Yes, it is something the NHS should pay for,” said Julian. “But when there’s no money in the pot, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t help them. We’re not throwing away the money. We’re just changing the investment vehicle from equities into property.”
Julian is on a drive to increase the Friends’ membership numbers. They had 71 supporters in March but there have been 98 new recruits since the spring. “Part of this is bringing the awareness of the hospital out into the community. The more friends we have, the more they can tell their neighbours about what’s going on. We will get more people involved in fundraising for the hospital and the projects in the pipeline.”
One of those initiatives will be the purchase of two electric vehicles and Julian expects they will be well-used. “Inpatients wishing to return home, before they are discharged, will go out possibly in a wheelchair to their homes with the occupational therapist, physiotherapist and nursing assistant to assess their needs in their own environment. If they are struggling to get out of bed, they can get aids to help that. The patient will finish their stay in hospital and when they return home, and everything will be in place for them.”
Julian said there is a second important use for the vehicles – helping to deliver a six-week package of care for patients who have returned home. “I’ve been a beneficiary of the re-ablement team for six weeks, after having major surgery on my back. They come into the house three times a day. They help dress you, wash you, prepare your food and slowly work you back up to health.”
To purchase these vehicles, the Friends need to raise an additional £66,000. “The vehicles themselves are about £25,000, then it’s £12,000 to convert them. The electric winches are extra. We’ve got a target of around £82,000,” he said.
Julian says going electric was important to the Friends. “The diesel vehicles are old. They do numerous short journeys and they never really go more than 20 miles in any direction. It’s not the best engine for those journeys. Dorset Healthcare is rolling out its own network of charging points across the hospitals. We will certainly be the first hospital to be running electric vehicles for the rehab team if we get the funding in the next year or so,” said Julian.