Fears over future of Migdale Hospital's Strathy ward as MSP Rhoda Grant urges NHS Highland to support mental health care in rural areas
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Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant has warned health bosses not to use the coronavirus pandemic "as cover" for local mental health resources being "diverted by the back door".
The worries come as she attacked an alleged lack of transparency over the future of Migdale Hospital’s Strathy ward in Bonar Bridge.
When the Sutherland hospital opened in 2011 it had 22 beds with two units.
The Strathy ward catered for older people with mental health problems and another ward offered a range of in-patient services, such as palliative care, general medicine and rehabilitation services.
NHS Highland has now told Mrs Grant that to “create capacity to respond to Covid-19, the Strathy ward has been reconfigured to accept and manage general patients” but stressed it had not closed.
The health authority said mental health provision was also “reconfigured and consolidated” within New Craigs Hospital in Inverness, where the service continued to be delivered.
However, Mrs Grant says that claims from the community suggest for all intents and purposes the ward is closed as it is no longer in operation, has no patients and will probably not be used for mental health services in the future.
“I am not satisfied with NHS Highland’s previous answers and, by all accounts, neither is the community,” said Mrs Grant, who has also discussed the issue with Unison, one of the unions involved.
“Someone has written: ‘It was sad to see all those empty beds and no-one in the sitting room’. Another said at the last count there were only five or six cars in the car park there.
“I suppose the questions is, what constitutes closure from the perspective of the health authority, against what the public is seeing there?
“When this hospital opened much was made of research into dementia and official visits to other hospitals providing dementia care to build on good practice.
“I certainly hope that those aspirations to provide that sort of service in a rural area have not gone and that coronavirus is not being used as cover for mental health staff and resources to be diverted by the back door.”
The Labour MSP has been told that only half the hospital is being used and there were concerns that in the future, when Covid-19 abates, older, adult elderly requiring assessment will no longer be cared for close to home in the Strathy ward but will be sent to New Craigs in Inverness.
“Worryingly there are also some claims that patients were discharged to care homes that were not equipped to meet those patients’ needs,” said Mrs Grant.
“Add to that information that some staff are unhappy, then it’s not a great situation at all for those who work on the front line and for families who want care closer to home.
“I have asked NHS Highland specific questions about the ward and submitted a Freedom of Information request and await a reply, but every week I am getting contacted with new information and fresh concerns.
“Centralisation of services to Inverness is a big issue for constituents and I am keen to get to the root of what is happening here.”
In July, NHS Highland told Mrs Grant there was nearly five nursing posts vacant on the Strathy ward.
A spokeswoman for NHS Highland said: "Like many other wards across Highland, Strathy ward in Migdale Hospital was reconfigured as part of the Covid-19 mobilisation.
"This was done to support general admissions by creating additional capacity within Migdale Hospital for any potential increase in admissions relating to Covid-19 from the community or other in-patient areas.
"During this period mental health provision was also reconfigured and consolidated within New Craigs Hospital in Inverness where the service continues to be delivered.
"The Strathy ward is not closed and staff members are supporting the patients within Migdale Hospital. There is also the opportunity to deploy the mental health staff within the local community utilising their expert knowledge and skills to help support people to remain within their own homes. This is in place while we are working through the remobilisation of services and ensure that we have capacity to respond to a second wave of Covid-19."