Waiting for an ambulance for 24 hours when your leg is broken is not fun wherever you are. In a market town like Saxundham, about half an hour’s drive from the nearest hospital, there aren’t many other options.
Saxmundham is located in the center of the Suffolk Coastal, the circle represented by Therese CoffeeMinister of Health, and provides a microcosm of the issues facing the health service.
Whether or not she survives the latest Conservative bloodshed, the health secretary or her successor will face the same challenges that Kofi identified when she took the job — the ABCD for the health service: ambulances, backlogs, care, doctors and dentistry.
John Havard, Saxmundham’s longest-serving GP, whose elderly patient was left waiting at home, says he doesn’t blame the ambulance service. It was an unusual condition, and no one suspected a fracture. “They did a really comprehensive evaluation: there was no leg trauma or pain, and it wasn’t a fall.”
She had to wait because resources stretched to breaking point, with the now-familiar queues of ambulances waiting outside emergency departments for free space. “It’s just hopeless,” says Havard. “It’s a third world country now.”
If a Harvard patient requires surgery at Ipswich Hospital, they will face a waiting time of up to 69 weeks depending on the condition. Even an X-ray can take up to four days.
The backlog is frustrating for Harvard, 64, who remains enthusiastic about his practice, as he is the only partner and employs seven the doctors.
“Demand is overstepping its bounds,” he says. “When I started here, 36 years ago, the hospital had four orthopedic surgeons. Now she has 28. And they are all busy.”
Care is another big challenge. One reason ambulances have to queue is the lack of space inside hospitals, with patients occupying one in seven beds in England well enough to go home, if caregivers can support them. So far, according to the Care Quality Commission, there are 300,000 vacancies across health and social care.
Karen Kerridge, President of Friends of the Halsworth Community health and Care, have been trying to set up a nursing home in the city since the Patrick Stead Community Hospital, in a classic Victorian building on the northern edge of Covey’s constituency, closed in 2015.
Kerridge says Halesworth is farther from County Hospital than any city in England. The closest is James Paget [near Great Yarmouth]. This is about a 45 minute drive. In an emergency situation, that’s a very long way to go,” she says.
“You don’t have any of these little hospitals where people can be taken out [from acute hospitals] to heal. People used to come to Patrick Stead for end-of-life care and spend their last few days close to family. But there is no local place now.”
The group of friends campaigned to save Patrick Stead, but it was unsuccessful. “We didn’t really get any support from our MP,” says Kerridge, referring to Covey. NHS officials said Much of the building is unused It was draining resources.
“We got a promise that we could get a nursing home in Halsworth and that they would take care of some of it NHS bed. That was better than nothing. While they promised that they would not close the hospital until it was settled.” The project is still in the pipeline and the hospital was put up for sale last year.
Meanwhile, Harvard is awaiting funding for a new surgery. The existing building has been flooded three times in recent years, and the increased demand by 12,000 patients in the clinic means there is little space. He’s been trying to expand for many years and hopes that Covey will speed up the process for a firm answer, one way or another.
The most pressing issue is GP recruitment and retention. The number of permanent GPs employed in England has fallen by about 7% over the past five years. Harvard offered a job in March 2021 to Claire Creek, an experienced general practitioner. She had stopped practicing a few years ago after a knee injury but was eager to get back to work and continued to train new GPs.
Red tape got in the way. Craik could not take office for 12 months, because she had to take several tests – she passed them with flying colors – and find a supervisor. “In theory, I could supervise myself,” she says. “I thought about giving up. If you’re trying to dissuade people from going back to work, that’s the kind of system you’re designing.”
Of all the problems facing Covey, dentistry is the most serious. There are no longer NHS dentists in Suffolk, according to Mark Jones, founder of Toothless in England Campaign. It began as Toothless in Leiston, a town a few miles from Saxmundham, in a desperate attempt to bring a dentist into the county.
“It just escalated,” Jones said. “People would pull out their own teeth, and heat needles on the stove so they could sever their abscesses.”
Now the campaign is national and has arranged for Dentaid, a charity founded in 1995 to take dentistry to poor countries abroad, to bring a mobile clinic to Suffolk. Last week, the truck visited the county for the fourth time, a temporary oasis in one of the UK’s ‘tooth deserts’.
“There is no shortage of dentists,” Jones said. “There is a lack of government will to make things right.”
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