Baby unit victory: Campaigners celebrate halting move of specialist service for premature babies

North Tees Hospital.
North Tees Hospital.

Campaigning councillors have halted a bid to see specialist services for severely premature babies being moved even further away from Hartlepool and East Durham.

There were fears the neo-natal unit used by families from Hartlepool and East Durham at the University Hospital of North Tees, in Stockton, would be downgraded meaning an estimated 100 cases a year would have to have their baby cared for elsewhere.

Councillor Ray Martin-Wells

Councillor Ray Martin-Wells

It would have probably have seen babies treated at James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, which is a 35-mile round trip from Hartlepool.

But a meeting of the North East Joint Health Scrutiny Committee in Hartlepool was given a reassurance from NHS England the unit at North Tees will not be ‘significantly downgraded’.

As part of the review, it was recommended that the Great North Children’s Hospital in Newcastle, Sunderland Royal Hospital and James Cook University in Middlesbrough all continue as Neonatal Intensive Care (NIC) units. It was planned for North Tees to be downgraded to provide just special.

Committee chairman and Hartlepool Borough Council councillor Ray Martin-Wells said: “The committee was not happy with the original proposals, nor were we happy with the reasons given for them.

“I am sure this reassurance will be welcomed both by the committee and the residents of Hartlepool and the surrounding area.”

The meeting at Hartlepool Civic Centre was told there is a ‘clinical need’ for some changes at North Tees, which will see an estimated six or seven babies currently treated at the unit each year being treated elsewhere.

Dr Sundeep Harisopal, North East neo-natal network group lead, told the meeting neo-natal care in the region was carried out at Newcastle, Sunderland, North Tees and Middlesbrough.

He added: “There is a clinical need for some of the most seriously ill babies currently treated at North Tees to be treated elsewhere, so there will need to be some minor changes.

“I cannot say at how many weeks born the affected babies will be, that decision will be taken on a case by case basis.

“But it is expected to affect about six or seven babies a year, a relatively small number out of around 3,100 annual births at North Tees.”

Councillors attending the meeting also raised concerns about transport – this related to the transfer of ill babies from one hospital to another and the affects of parents having to travel further to be at the bedside of their loved ones.

The meeting was told a coherent strategy for transporting babies between the hospitals will be devised as part of the continuing review of neo-natal services.

Speaking after the meeting, Coun Martin-Wells said: “I am pleased there is now not going to be any significant downgrade of the neo-natal services at North Tees.

“We accept a small number of the most poorly babies may have to be treated elsewhere.

“But the original proposal would have affected about 100 families, which is two a week and is two a week too many.”

The issue would be looked at as part of a wider Better Health Board review of hospital and community-based services with consultation expected to begin in 2016.

The councillor added: “We also made it absolutely clear that when consultation is carried out starting in the autumn of 2016, this must be a very thorough process which gives everyone the opportunity to participate and air their views.”