CONTROVERSIAL plans for a major re-organisation of health services that could lead to fewer emergencies being dealt with by Maidstone Hospital have suffered a serious setback.
County councillors have narrowly rejected plans by health chiefs affecting both Maidstone Hospital and the Kent and Sussex Hospital at Pembury, Tunbridge Wells.
The decision has dismayed bosses of the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Trust but delighted campaigners who are battling to maintain Maidstone as an acute general hospital. Opponents include some of Maidstone’s top medics, as well as local GPs.
They fear lives could be put at risk because of the length of time needed to take emergency patients from Maidstone to Tunbridge Wells.
Trust chiefs are consulting on plans to centralise emergency orthopaedic surgery and general emergency surgery at the Pembury site while creating a specialist centre for complex surgery at Maidstone.
However, the shake-up also involves the prospect of reducing the capacity of Maidstone Hospital to deal with certain "blue light" emergencies and it is this that has sparked widespread opposition.
Under the plans, the trust estimates that around 4,380 emergency cases a year would end up having to be dealt with by acute hospitals in Dartford, Medway, Ashford or Tunbridge Wells.
Councillors on the Kent and Medway NHS Scrutiny have voted against the shake-up, saying that it is not in the best interests of patients in the area.
At a meeting on Friday, the committee stopped short of using its power to refer the issue to the Secretary of State.
But its opposition to the proposals, which was decided on the casting vote of the chairman, the Maidstone county councillor Alan Chell, is significant as it must now be considered a key factor when a final decision is reached by the West Kent Primary Care Trust.
Although the shake-up could still go ahead as envisaged, it is possible that the trust may now scrap it altogether and draw up different plans.
Trust chief executive Rose Gibb said after the meeting even more radical steps could be on the cards.
"I think the committee’s decision is very unfortunate. For patients, it means they continue to have a poorer service and it means the board will now have to look at what else we can do.
"We are going to have to look at more radical solutions. If these proposals, which are a compromise are not regarded as that, it potentially means the total closure of some services in the future," she said.
During the meeting, councillors heard from hospital consultants that the re-organisation was poorly thought-out and potentially harmful to patients.
Dr Chris Thom, a consultant in geriatrics, said: "This is a proposal to withdraw a service [accident and emergency] which we as physicians, most commonly rely on. This withdrawal of genera surgery from the hospital would expose our patients to an unnecessary and unacceptable risk of harm which is not there at the moment and that is why we oppose it.
"I simply do not believe you can remove accident and emergency services and keep Maidstone as a first-rate hospital for acute services."
He was supported by Maidstone GP Dr Debbie Taylor, who represents the local division of the British Medical Association. She said poor road links between Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells presented a risk to the treatment of emergency patients.
"Moving these services will be a significant deterioration of our local service. If a patient in Maidstone has an accident, they will be taken to Medway, Ashford or Dartford and it will take longer and people will die. Whatever others may say, it is clear that doctors in Maidstone are opposed and I have not met anyone who is in favour."