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Kent County Council approves plan to close stroke services in three Kent hospitals and create specialist units

By Caitlin Webb, local democracy reporter

Patients will be "desperately let down" by a transformation of the way stroke sufferers are treated in Kent, according to a county councillor, after his colleagues gave the go ahead for the NHS to close three hospital units.

Stroke centres in Tunbridge Wells, Margate and Medway will be axed following the decision by members of the Kent County Council health overview and scrutiny committee today.

Councillors narrowly passed a motion to "accept the rationale" put forward by health officials to instead build three specialist hyper-acute stroke units in Maidstone Hospital, Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford and William Harvey Hospital in Ashford to treat patients across the county.

Scroll down to hear from a CCG rep and the director of the Kent and Medway Stroke Review.

Kent County Council has approved plans by health officials to shut stroke services in three hospitals and create three specialist units in three others
Kent County Council has approved plans by health officials to shut stroke services in three hospitals and create three specialist units in three others

However the committee outlined concerns that closing the stroke units in Tunbridge Wells, Margate and Medway could impact travel times, staffing levels over the long-term and increase inequalities.

Six councillors voted against the plans to accept the reconfiguration, including former Swale Borough Council leader Andrew Bowles.

Cllr Bowles told the committee how he could not sit back after he had seen the NHS "chipping away" at health care in east Kent for 25 years.

He said: "As someone who is an ex-non executive director within the health service, I seem to have heard this over the past 25 years.

"There has been a continual drift towards downgrading services to the east end of the county.

"I cannot be convinced of this even though I would like to do what is right for the majority of my residents."

Cllr Andrew Bowles
Cllr Andrew Bowles

He added: "If we are going to go down the road to three services, why the hell would you put two of them as close together as physically possible?

"Looking at the current make up of hospitals, it makes no sense.

"Forgetting the fact I represent Swale east, we are all here to represent all the people of Kent.

"The people of Thanet and east Kent are being desperately let down by this process.

"It cannot possibly be right and I cannot possibly support it."

Even though the NHS have been given Kent County Council's seal of approval, the plans are still on hold as two judicial reviews have been filed against the decision - the outcome of which will not be known for several months.

The joint statement of the health committee acknowledges "there is no perfect arrangement of services" but agrees "the current proposal may be the optimal way forward at this current time".

The decision by the NHS clinical commissioning groups in February to focus stroke treatment on the three units in Ashford, Maidstone and Dartford has been met with criticism by residents in Thanet as it would mean the closure of the unit at the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother hospital in Margate.

Members of the Save Our NHS in Kent campaign group called the move by councillors "disgraceful".

Under the plan approved by KCC, one of the stroke units would be built at Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford
Under the plan approved by KCC, one of the stroke units would be built at Darent Valley Hospital in Dartford

Carly Jeffrey said: "We are absolutely devastated. We can't believe the councillors have changed their minds. Some of them so drastically since the last meeting.

"The last meeting it was unanimously voted in agreement to push things back on the basis there are lots of problems with the plan.

"We think it is quite disgraceful that seven councillors in favour to progress with the plans have essentially voted in favour of a 23% increase in mortality in Thanet.

"They voted in favour of capacity problems with the stroke units that will be left behind and they've voted on putting a huge amount of strain on our ambulance service."

She added her fears the initial delay on the decision until after the local elections gave officials from the NHS enough time to convince councillors.

Under the plan approved by KCC, one of the stroke units would be built at William Harvey Hospital in Ashford. Picture: Paul Amos
Under the plan approved by KCC, one of the stroke units would be built at William Harvey Hospital in Ashford. Picture: Paul Amos

Both Sarah Hamilton (Con) and Dan Daley (Lib Dem) admitted they previously favoured the idea of four hyper acute stroke units (HASU) in the county until an informal meeting on May 7.

Cllr Daley said he was assured by the officials the right decision was being made but he is sympathetic to those who will be affected in Thanet.

Representatives for Thanet, Cllr Rosalind Binks (Con), Cllr Karen Constantine (Lab) and Cllr Lesley Game (Con) all spoke out for their constituents.

Cllr Constantine discredited the NHS's conclusion a stroke unit in Thanet is not necessary, by explaining there are 382 incidents in the area every year.

She said: "I feel the residents of Thanet, the vast majority who currently live within 15 minutes of a stroke service, are going to be massively disadvantaged by having to travel to Ashford. There's no doubt about that."

Under the plan approved by KCC, one of the stroke units would be built at Maidstone Hospital
Under the plan approved by KCC, one of the stroke units would be built at Maidstone Hospital

Cllr Binks asked the NHS officials if the amount of units was a budgetary decision but Dr David Sulch assured her it was more an issue of recruitment.

Using his experience working in London, he described how building new facilities attracts specialists to the area.

Rachel Jones, director of the Kent and Medway stroke review, told councillors: "We will save a life every other week, it's a good decision.

"We are absolutely certain we have found the right three locations because of the two years of work we've done.

"We've considered absolutely every single possible option and worked with the best people in terms of engagement, clinical advice, the public to come to the decision."

Nodding to the impending judicial reviews of the decision, brought by Medway Council and Ramsgate resident Marion Keppel, she added: "There is still a long way to go but there's no reason we can't move forward with implementation, which is exactly what we would be planning to do as long as we don't take decisions that are irreversible."

To keep up-to-date with all the latest developments with your local hospitals and other health stories, click here.

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