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'Full service' pledge by NHS Highland after criticism from North Highland Women’s Wellbeing Hub

By Alan Hendry

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NHS Highland pointed out that Caithness General Hospital has provision for patients in general gynaecology. Picture: Alan Hendry
NHS Highland pointed out that Caithness General Hospital has provision for patients in general gynaecology. Picture: Alan Hendry

NHS Highland has responded to criticism over its level of care for women in the far north by outlining how it seeks to deliver a "full service".

North Highland Women’s Wellbeing Hub claimed this week that services in Caithness and Sutherland are currently "not safe or ethical" and said it was continuing to work with human rights organisations.

An online petition submitted to the Scottish Parliament by the group's vice-chairperson Rebecca Wymer calls for an emergency in-depth review of women's health services in the far north.

The petition alleges that "women's health services are now breaching basic human rights and we fear someone will lose their life due to the lack of gynaecology care".

Responding to the hub's concerns, a spokesperson for the health board said: "NHS Highland has formal meetings with the North Highland Women’s Wellness Hub and are in regular contact giving them updates on services and what is available in the Caithness area. We adopt a life course approach as part of the national Women's Health Plan with the aim to deliver a full service at Caithness.

"Caithness General Hospital has provision for patients in general gynaecology including menopause, endometriosis, pelvic floor, postmenopausal bleeding, colposcopy and day gynaecology surgery.

"We have a full-time consultant based in Caithness to deliver gynaecology services and they are supported by three clinicians visiting on a rotational basis. We have also recently commissioned an additional two visiting consultants, one from Orkney and another from Tayside, to support gynaecology sessions in Caithness.

"Gynaecology patients who have been seen at a Caithness General Hospital outpatient clinic have in general shorter waiting times compared to those waiting to access Raigmore Hospital. Patients local to Caithness who are seen at an outpatient clinic in Raigmore may be listed for their procedure in Caithness General Hospital where appropriate.

"A gynaecology specialist nurse is employed to run colposcopy clinics in Golspie. This service has been located in Golspie to allow for a wider geographical catchment area. For Caithness women this is a more locally based service than travelling the full return journey from Caithness to Inverness.

"All gynaecology cancer cases in NHS Highland are managed by the North of Scotland Cancer Network which includes Caithness.

"All subfertility cases needing tertiary care input are affiliated to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary as part of a service level agreement with NHS Highland and this is not any different for the Caithness population. Tests and work up are done locally as much as is practical and feasible.

"Our specialist menopause clinics are done by telephone ensuring equitable access to all patients across Highland. We also provide eight face-to-face sexual health clinics a month in Caithness as well as providing self-sampling kits (home testing for STIs) via post, routine telephone consultations and daily telephone rapid access clinics open to all patients across Highland as well as a daily teen live (web) chat service.

"While we no longer have Caithness-based sexual health clinicians, with the exception of one GP doing a monthly coil clinic, all our sexual health clinical staff travel to Caithness from Raigmore. This is likely to continue to maintain clinical support and competency for clinicians.

"Health awareness sessions on endometriosis and menopause have been conducted in 2022 by gynaecologists from within the team and information and support group signposting made available to all participants.

"Women's lived experience and feedback is constantly shared to our teams to ensure levels of good practice are adhered to with peer support where required."

In October last year, the Scottish Human Rights Commission wrote to NHS Highland highlighting issues ranging from lengthy A9 journeys to the quality of gynaecological provision following concerns from women in Caithness and Sutherland.

SHRC chairman Ian Duddy said the organisation wanted to ensure that the delivery of health services in the Highlands "takes a human rights-based approach".

The NHS Highland spokesperson said: "We are keen to engage with the Scottish Human Right Commission and are in the process of responding to them."

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