A rural GP practice is set to close its doors for good after plans were backed by health bosses.
Earlier this year, Skerne Medical Group (SMG), which currently runs four surgeries, revealed it was planning to close its sites in Trimdon Village and Fishburn.
The changes were subject to a six-week public consultation and prompted by a ‘recruitment crisis’ threatening the entire group.
On December 18, NHS Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield Clinical Commissioning Group’s (DDES CCG) Primary Care Commissioning Committee held an emergency meeting over the plans.
While a CCG report acknowledged that Trimdon residents “suffer from a high level of deprivation” and low car ownership, the committee backed the closure plans for the part-time Trimdon surgery.
As part of the decision, health bosses rejected SMG’s bid to close the Fishburn Village surgery and called for consultation around SMG’s future plans.
However, Trimdon and Thornley councillor, Peter Brookes urged health bosses to reconsider, presenting a 410-signature petition from local residents opposing the Trimdon closure.
“What we do know is that Trimdon Village has the highest level of deprivation and poverty within the SMG area,” he told health bosses at Fishburn Youth and Community Centre.
“What we can’t understand is rather than investing in Trimdon Village and finding ways of improving the service in the area of the most health need you want to reduce the service.
“For that reason it really smacks of a business decision that’s being made rather than a decision that’s being made based on the health need of the population.”
Coun Brookes added that the consultation was “flawed” and claimed that the GP surgery closing would not solve long-term issues facing the practice.
The SMG consultation originally sought opinions on whether ‘Trimdon Village surgery and one additional site’ should be closed in 2019.
A report presented to the committee said patients “were not properly engaged” as an original consultation letter sent to patients did not reference that Fishburn Village surgery could be closed.
Dr Stewart Findlay, chief officer of DDES CCG, stressed closure plans were needed to protect services in the area.
“The fact remains, this practice can’t retain doctors and the reason is because they have too many sites and that is something we’re seeing across the entire region at the moment,” he said.
“This is not unique to SMG and I think we will be getting more and more requests for branch closures as we go through the next few years because this problem is not going to go away no matter what we do.”
Mr Findlay also said the suggestion the Trimdon closure was a business decision was “very wrong” and stressed the practice would make no gain from closing services.
“This is a practice that is under so much pressure that they’re in danger of complete collapse which would be a disaster for our area and for all of the surrounding practices who would have to take on that workload should that happen,” he added.
“We should recognise the immense pressure the practice has been under and they have worked very hard to provide services for their patients.”
In their decision making, the committee were asked to balance the loss of the service in Trimdon Village against the potential loss of a practice serving thousands of patients.
Data on SMG, provided by Primary Care Contracts Manager for NHS England, Wendy Thompson, stated SMG provides services for 15,641 patients across its four sites.
Of this number, the Trimdon Village site – which faced emergency closure last year due to a staffing reductions – currently serves 1,500 people.
Partner at SMG, Dr Christine Herman told the meeting the changes were needed to secure a “sustainable future” for patients due to housing developments in the area.
“At all times our role has been to make changes to ensure the continued provision of safe quality primary care to all our patients,” she said.
“We have delivered a consistent message that our multiple sites have compounded our abilities in recruitment and retention of medical staff.
“The process has been a steep learning curve for us, we’re primarily family doctors and our expertise is in caring for patients.
“The process we have gone through has presented considerable challenges to us and added considerable stress to our team at a time when we already face dramatic workload pressures.
“We have done our best, but we will learn from the mistakes we may have made.”
She added that SMG would continue to work with patients and the CCG moving forward to create a “futureproof service” for patients.
Following the decision, SMG surgeries in Sedgefield, Fishburn and Trimdon Colliery remain open into 2019.
A CCG report adds that general medical services will still be available to the population including home visiting where appropriate.
Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service