A HEALTH watchdog has voiced major concerns about the time it will take Hartlepool residents to get to a hospital after a routine round-trip took a staggering FOUR hours.
Volunteers from Healthwatch Hartlepool carried out 20 journeys on public transport between Hartlepool and the University Hospital of North Tees to experience the challenges facing residents – with one round trip clocking in at four hours.
Concerns have also been raised over timetabling problems, the lack of a direct public bus route to North Tees, problems booking places on some shuttle services between the University Hospital of Hartlepool and the Stockton site, access issues for disabled people and the complexity of routes.
The group carried out a series of test runs after the controversial plans to move services from Hartlepool came under fire.
For many town residents - who rely on public transport - the return journey takes roughly the same time it takes to travel to London by train.
North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust said the work has given them a better understanding of the challenges facing people.
The proposal, which will cost £2.3m and affect 10,000 patients, is to centralise emergency medical and critical care services at the University Hospital of North Tees.
Health chiefs say the changes need to happen because of “significant” concerns and stress while the current service is safe, it is not sustainable.
Healthwatch Hartlepool is a network that aims to help improve health and social care for residents and volunteers started their journeys from different parts of the town, at different times, using different methods including the bus, train and hospital shuttle bus.
The earliest start was 6am to replicate the time it would take somebody to arrive for an 8am appointment.
Journey times varied considerably with the shortest return journey of around two hours from Seaton Carew, Greatham and the Fens area but for others in the north of the town and outlying villages they faced up to a four-hour round trip.
Most of the journeys took between three and three-and-a-half hours so add in a two-hour visit at the hospital and people could be away from home for up to six hours.
Healthwatch officials said for many, the journey involves using three buses, with changes required in York Road and in Norton or Stockton High Street.
The shuttle service between the Holdforth Road and Stockton site takes 20 minutes but patients and visitors must book their place the day before and make their way to Hartlepool hospital while journeys before 9am were very busy with hospital staff. There was also no wheelchair access.
Meanwhile, although the train journey to Stockton lasts only 20 minutes, connecting bus journeys meant it raised the overall time to get there to one hour and 30 minutes.
Margaret Wrenn, chair of Healthwatch Hartlepool, said: “The journeys that Healthwatch members have taken highlight the longstanding problems which residents of Hartlepool face if they need to get to North Tees Hospital using public transport.
“There is a real need for the hospital Trust, the CCG and the local authority to take urgent steps to improve the situation.”
Officials thanked the Trust and Stagecoach, who provided free bus passes, for their help over last week.
Stephen Thomas, from Healthwatch, said: “I would like to thank all the volunteers for their hard work.
“This was a very important piece of work as we believe people in Hartlepool deserve better access.”
The plans would see all emergency admissions go to North Tees, four emergency medical wards close at Hartlepool with a total of 135 beds removed and the jobs of around 200 people affected.
Also, Hartlepool’s critical care unit relocated to add to North Tees’s 12-bed critical care unit while Hartlepool would become a centre for day case and low-risk operations with an increase in medical rehabilitation beds.
A detailed Healthwatch report will now go to the Trust, CCG and Hartlepool Borough Council.
SIDEBAR - TRUST RESPONSE
HEALTH chiefs say they “very grateful” for the work which has helped them gain a better understanding of the challenges faced by patients and their families.
NHS Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees Clinical Commissioning Group, Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield CCG, and North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust have carried out the consultation into proposals to move remaining critical care services.
Barbara Carr, assistant director of nursing and patient experience, said: “We were pleased, as part of the consultation, to get an understanding of the challenges faced by patients and their relatives when making the journey from Hartlepool to the University Hospital of North Tees.
“Volunteers from Healthwatch have undertaken around 20 journeys at different times of the day from Saturday 17 August to Friday 23 August.
“Strangely the easiest journey was from Seaton Carew via Middlesbrough but we know that at least one journey took more than two hours.
“This has also highlighted that there are no direct bus links but at least one bus service comes very near the hospital and a minor detour is all that would be needed to improve access.
“There were issues with bus times as well. All this valuable information will be compiled into a report and given to the local authorities who liaise with transport providers.
“Healthwatch also raised a number of issues with us about problems people had experienced when booking the free shuttle bus.
“In the future there will be more free shuttle buses so we very much hope this will address the issue but we ask that patients let us know straightaway if this does cause a problem for them.
“We decided against wheelchair space in the shuttle buses because of the number of seats which need to be removed but if a patient who is a wheelchair user discusses any transport problems with us we will do our best to accommodate their needs in some other way.
“While neither ourselves or the clinical commissioning groups who buy care for local people are responsible for transport we all appreciate the problems people currently have getting to the healthcare appointments and we took the view we would go over and above what could be expected to try and help.
“The information gathered throughout the week and throughout the public consultation is extremely valuable. It has certainly helped us and we’re sure it will help the local authorities.
“We are very grateful to Healthwatch and their volunteers for carrying out such a comprehensive exercise.
“It was the least we could do to offer a drink and bite to eat for the volunteers before they set out on their return journey.”
SIDEBAR - VOLUNTEERS HAVE THEIR SAY
VOLUNTEERS have spoken of the difficulties they faced getting to the University Hospital of North Tees and back.
As well as getting the train to Thornaby and Stockton, the volunteers also used several bus routes including the Number 1 to Middlesbrough and then the Number 37 to the hospital, and the Number 36 to Stockton and then Number 37 to the hospital site, as there is no direct bus from Hartlepool.
Paul Mowbray, 40, from the town centre, said: “The travelling is very time consuming.
“I travelled on the bus with two people who have learning difficulties and it was confusing trying to work out the connecting bus routes. It wasn’t easy.
“This was definitely a worthwhile experience.”
Judith Gray, 68, of Clavering, said: “My scenario was that I had to be at North Tees for an 8am appointment but because I suffer with travel sickness I had to get up at 4am to take the tablets to ensured they kicked in.
“We set off at 6am from Clavering and we made it on time but it is a long journey. This shouldn’t have to happen.”
Margaret Metcalf, 63, from the Dyke House area, said: “The weather was good for us thankfully and it would have been much worse in winter.
“I’m not sure how I would have felt if I was feeling ill and the weather was bad.”
The volunteers said it would be a greater challenge for people that are unwell, people with restricted mobility or those with children.
SIDEBAR- WHERE CAN YOU TRAVEL TO AND BACK FROM IN AROUND FOUR HOURS?
* Hartlepool to Manchester (122 miles) takes around two hours 20 minutes.
* Hartlepool to Hull (97 miles) takes around two hours 16 minutes.
* Hartlepool to Sheffield (108 miles) takes around two hours seven minutes.
* Hartlepool to London Kings Cross (one way) takes between three and four hours.
* London to Madrid (780 miles) takes around two hours on the plane.