When patients furious at the sudden closure of Willen Village Surgery inundated NHS England’s south midlands team with calls, the Hertfordshire based organisation found itself struggling to cope with the geography of Milton Keynes.
The distances between the surgeries patients had to register at inNewport Pagnell, Broughton Gate, Oakridge Park and Stantonbury, and Willen were a mystery to them.
So they asked the city’s new independent health and social care champion, HealthwatchMK, to step in.
The organisation formed out of the ashes of predecessor LINk:MK on April 1, as part of the Health and Social care Act 2012.
Described by workers as ‘right in the middle’ between health providers and patients, HealthwatchMK’s brief is to build and maintain relationships with patients and patient groups, as well as providers and commissioners of health and social care.
The Willen Village Surgery closure certainly meant its soon to be expanded team of Carol Duffy and Emma Rowe had a busy few weeks in their new roles.
Patients were left angry and confused when they turned up to find out the surgery had been shut without warning on Friday, April 12.
A letter was also sent to homeowners in the area, but many patients did not receive it until the Saturday.
Residents, including many from the nearby Lovat Fields Retirement Village, were told they had to register at surgeries in Newport Pagnell, Broughton Gate, Oakridge Park and Stantonbury.
Carol said: “NHS England said they were having problems with the geography and asked if they could direct people to us to help them.
“We’ve had hundreds of calls and are still being inundated.
“People are disgusted with how it has been handled and there has not been a great deal of information from the health team.
“We are now getting more and more complex queries.
“People being told to register elsewhere brings up issues of patient transport.
“One of the practices has closed its books on taking new patients.
“Some people were not happy with where they have been placed and have re-registered elsewhere. Some surgeries have said they won’t take people because they aren’t in their area.
“Some patients didn’t even get letters, so they have rung up here worried. Some people received letters who weren’t patients.
“A couple of our members even rang as they had heard the surgery will be re-opened. This is not true. The NHS will look into the need for a surgery at some point, but there is no indication when this will be, if a surgery will re-open and even if it did, if it would be in the same building.
“What people are now wondering is if their surgery will be next. We can’t say whether it will or won’t, but it is important that people understand that each surgery is set up differently.
“Willen Village was a single practitioner, which is unusual.”
While the Willen Village baptism of fire kept Carol and Emma busy, the pair have the expertise in place to deal with such queries having both worked for LINk and previous incarnations of patient help bodies.
Although quick to stress HealthwatchMK is not a watchdog and that it cannot handle individual complaint cases, they emphasised how important feedback from patients is.
Carol said: “Because we are independent, people know they can come to us and tell us things in confidence.
“We can build a knowledge of people’s experience, without passing any names on.
“We can help people understand the NHS and what it means for them. There is a lot of Department of Health speak and NHS speak.
“People say how relieved they are that we can help with that.”
And Emma added: “People are confused, although it isn’t as complicated as it seems. But patients shouldn’t have to worry about it.
“Some don’t want to know the set-up, they just want point of access care.
“Some do and we have members who are on local groups, and who we have trained as community champions.
“The Department of Health hasn’t done much to help patients understand the changes.”
HealthwatchMK offers residents plenty of opportunities to get involved, including membership of focus groups and positions as commissioning champions.
But the most basic part of the group comes through its power to harness the opinions of members.
HealthwatchMK members need do no more than take advantage of all the latest news on its website and in its regular newsletter.
People are not pressured to go to events or even to give feedback.
But their opinions are always welcomed.
Carol said: “You don’t need to leave your home to be involved. You can simply receive our newsletter and do nothing else.
“If people do see an issue that affects them they can give their views on that subject.
“You can be involved just by sitting in your armchair and it helps people in MK get services they want and need.”
“The more people join the more impact we can have,” added Emma.
“It is real grass routes issues. What people tell us is important. They point out what needs to be our priorities.”
One example of this plan in action came recently with the deaf and hearing impaired service.
A number of complaints about the service were reaching Carol and Emma, and a pattern was beginning to build around them.
Patients were upset at being expected to have to write down their issues or, worse, get someone to sign and translate for them. This second method led to mistakes being made, and also provided the opportunity for bad news to be relayed through a friend or family member when patients might otherwise have wanted it to remain private.
After HealthwatchMK spoke to the health authorities, they found an online system called sign/translate.
This provides instant help for deaf people communicating with medical staff, via an online interpreting service which uses a live web-cam link to qualified British Sign Language interpreters.
The system has now been installed at Milton Keynes Hospital and four GP surgeries in the city.
The work of HealthwatchMK has also received fulsome praise from Milton Keynes Council member, Derek Eastman.
Mr Eastman encountered problems dealing with the introduction of Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), but told the Citizen that HealthwatchMK were ‘absolutely superb people’.
He said: “In 2002 my wife had major surgery for a condition that we were told could return. The surgery was within five weeks of the initial scan.
“In August 2012 my wife was admitted to hospital twice and we were convinced it was the same condition. It took four months for it to be confirmed and we were told on Christmas Eve that surgery was required. We thought that it would be smooth running.
“My wife agreed to to be referred to a specialist hospital at Basingstoke. A further test was carried out in January and in February the consultant in Basingstoke requested funding for treatment from the local CCG. We thought it would now gain pace but it didn’t.
“By early April we had not heard anything and started to contact the CCG at Northampton. We wanted to know what was happening with my wife’s case. We had been quoted dates for funding decisions that came and went without a decision. Emails were ignored and phone calls were not returned. We could not speak to anyone beyond reception.
“It was late April when I contacted Healthwatch. It was such a relief to speak to someone who was able to reassure us they would investigate. It helped relieve the stress of the situation. I spoke to Emma, Sarah and Carol. They were all calm and helpful but I believe they too were frustrated with the fact they did not find it easy to get information.
“However, as soon as Healthwatch got involved the CCG began to make contact with us. We had replies to emails and phone calls returned and much clearer detail on what was happening. We now know the current standing of the application for my wife’s surgery. It has made it easier on us and reduced stress levels and we now have a contact at a CCG.
“We have dealt with three separate CCGs and the process regarding funding with CCGs still has built in delay mechanisms and we are still waiting for a decision.
“But Healthwatch did, I believe, open doors that we could not have done.”
Another way in which HealthwatchMK gets involved is via a big event in Midsummer Hall every year.
Many small health groups get involved and HealthwatchMK can offer them stalls for £25 rather than the £250 they would otherwise have to pay.
Last year, there was also a health zone where people could have simple health checks such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and BMI.
This year the event will take place on October 29.
There will also be a PPG (Patient Participation Group) networking event on Wednesday, May 8.
PPGs hold four meetings a year, and the upcoming meeting will be attended by three guest speakers: the NHS Milton Keynes Clinical Commissioning Group’s chairman, Dr Nicola Smith, and chief officer Jeannie Ablett; and the GP Contract Manager, Primary Care Directorate for Hertfordshire and South Midlands Area Team, NHS England, Lynn Dalton.
It will be held at the Peartree Centre, in Chadds Lane, Peartree Bridge, starting at 5.15pm.
HealthwatchMK can be contacted by calling 01908 266696 or via its website at www.healthwatchmiltonkeynes.co.uk