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Unite warns proposals to outsource Kent and Medway's pathology services to a private company would put patients at risk

Analysis of blood and urine tests currently run across Kent by the NHS could be outsourced to a private company in a move which union bosses warn could put patients at risk.

Health chiefs from Kent's four hospital trusts - Dartford and Gravesham, East Kent, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells and Medway - are currently discussing plans to create a single, county-wide pathology service, which they say could save the NHS £5million over four years.

Under the proposals, pathology laboratories, used to analyse test results and diagnose diseases, could be moved to a number of 'hubs', with three possible options for management of the overall service also published in a strategic outline case.

Pathology services could face a shake-up. Picture: Nick Johnson
Pathology services could face a shake-up. Picture: Nick Johnson

These include a fully NHS-owned-and-delivered service, the trusts working together in partnership with a private provider, or outsourcing the entire network under a tendered procurement process.

The Unite union, which has 100,000 members in the health service, is campaigning to prevent the latter option being chosen, claiming a commercial company would be driven by profit, rather than patient safety.

Indeed, bosses themselves acknowledged in a SWOT analysis - a study undertaken by an organization to identify its internal strengths and weaknesses - the idea could be "extremely damaging" to staff relationships, and could result in employees leaving for other trusts.

Conversely, they claimed the benefits could include quicker implementation and higher growth potential.

Unite regional officer Kathy Walters said: “The Kent public needs to be fully aware of the possibility of the pathology service being turned into a cash cow for a profit hungry private company.

“Biomedical scientists analyse blood samples and human tissue for patients who could have life-threatening conditions, so it is vital that there should be no erosion of standards.

“This proposed move is compounded by the lack of trained biomedical scientists; recruitment and retention problems; old and outdated equipment; and inadequate IT systems.

Pathology services could face a shake-up. Picture: Nick Johnson
Pathology services could face a shake-up. Picture: Nick Johnson

“Unite is wholly opposed to outsourcing of NHS jobs and services and will campaign hard against such a flawed option.

"We are also against any attempt to downgrade staff; and reduce pay and terms and conditions to fund this misguided reorganisation.

“NHS Improvement (NHSI), responsible for overseeing NHS trusts, has said that the changes nationally to pathology services should absolutely not be about saving money, but should be about quality and patient safety.

“NHS bosses in Kent should take serious note of the parameters that NHSI has set out for the reconfiguration of pathology services across England.

“Our biomedical scientist members, many of whom are registered with their professional body, the Health & Care Professions Council, have a professional duty to raise concerns about patient safety – and will do so, if the need arises.

“We will not sit idly by while yet another blatant privatisation, which is not in the interests of the people of Kent, moves to the next stage in 2019.”

Health bosses insist the process remains at an early stage, with all options still to be discussed in detail.

Miles Scott, chief executive of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust and chair of the Kent and Medway Pathology Programme Steering Group, said: “The four hospital trust boards are in the process of considering the strategic outline case and once this has been approved, the next stage of the process - to develop the outline business case – will begin.

Miles Scott, from Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust
Miles Scott, from Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust

“This stage will involve much more detailed analysis of the options going forward and will require the continued involvement of our staff, union representatives, primary care colleagues and commissioners.

“Each step of the way this project is being clinically led. The four hospital trusts in the county have agreed to work together to create an integrated pathology service fit for the 21st century.

"This will include investments in technology and staff development, creating a service where people wish to come to learn, work and carry out research.

“We understand the concerns raised by Unite and are committed to working with our staff and their representatives in taking this work forward.

"No decision has yet been made about any of the potential options. Any decision will be based on the fundamental principles of quality, sustainability and patient safety”.

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