A packed Cumbernauld public meeting about doctors’ services arguably broke new ground – but not in a way many seemed to appreciate.
Around two hundred people had arrived at the New Town Hall meeting to demand answers to a lengthy series of questions about the controversial decision to axe what had been a locally-provided out-of-hours doctors’ service.
But in place of the conventional serried ranks of chairs facing the platform – the format for public meetings for generations – the hall was laid out, “cabaret style”.
Attendees sat around a collection of circular tables where they were invited to engage with each other in “interactive discussion”.
Local Labour MP Gregg McClymont was among those who found the format “surprising”, but despite the cosy lay-out there was to be plenty of old-fashioned barracking of NHS presenters from the floor.
As reported over recent weeks the present system for seeing a GP out of normal hours (for non emergency treatment) has become unworkable.
Since 2004, when out-of-hours duty ceased to become a contractual obligation for doctors, too few have been prepared to carry out the extra work.
Reasons for this dearth have been variously explained as reluctance to work over-long hours, not enough money, and a growing tendency for some doctors, particularly women, to work part-time in order to accommodate family life.
Another snag is that doctors insist on working in pairs, and it had become increasingly difficulty to find two GPs for each town in Lanarkshire.
But the preferred NHS Lanarkshire option for a reprise of the service (after exhaustive study of the possibilities) has attracted universal condemnation.
Community groups across Cumbernauld and Kilsyth are horrified at the idea of people, possibly elderly and infirm, having to find their way to Airdrie or Hamilton and back in order to see a doctor.
Free priority taxis and car-shares have been suggested, but detail has yet to emerge.
One potentially positive message from the meeting (see readers’ letters, p6) is that some people have been the out-of-hours service in areas such as Falkirk which are “over the border” – apparently without difficulty.
But Gregg McClymont summed up the general feeling when he asked: “How can it be right for a town the size of Cumbernauld, and with it Kilsyth, not to have its own local service?
“It doesn’t make any sense at all”.
In charge of the exercise for NHS Lanarkshire was Kate Bell, senior manager for change and innovation, who stressed the thorough and transparent nature of the consultation and the difficulty of finding a perfect solution.
She fielded complaints about the presentation itself (no paper version available, no arrangements for signing if you were visually impaired), and carried on regardless when the microphone packed up.
At the end of proceedings she and her team were left in no doubt that the Airdrie/Hamilton option remains wildly unpopular.
Gregg McClymont remained unconvinced by the proposed solution, and also highly critical of the area’s MSP.
He said:“I was surprised that local MSP Jamie Hepburn who is after all the Scottish Government Minister for Health Improvement did not say a word during the entire meeting.
“Our local MSP should be putting his constituents before his Health ministerial career.
“As Professor Frank Clark and many others pointed out at the meeting it is nonsense for any decision to be made about the local service while the Scottish Government undertakes a national review of Out of Hours GP provision.
“The question was posed repeatedly by those who attended and no good answer was supplied - - why is the consultation not being halted until the Scottish Government review is completed”.
Local SNP parliamentary candidate Stuart McDonald also thinks the NHS Lanarkshire exercise should be called off until the national review is concluded.
He said: “The single biggest criticism of the so-called consultation is that it doesn’t even allow people the option to say we want services to remain in Cumbernauld.
“That’s just not proper consultation at all - so no wonder people were clearly very frustrated with the whole process.
“There were strong and persuasive arguments put forward at the meeting for not making any decision until that review is concluded - hopefully by the end of the summer. The board should listen”.