News that Watford General Hospital’s A&E department became overwhelmed by emergency admissions and had to turn away patients earlier this month is the culmination of a disastrous 10-year story of neglect and deception by health policy-makers.
Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of a crucial meeting of the then Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Strategic Health Authority (SHA), following a costly eight- month public consultation, to approve its plan optimistically called Investing in Your Health.
While those of us living in Dacorum were dismayed by the decision to drastically downgrade A&E services at Hemel Hempstead, the plan agreed by the SAH at that meeting still had many positive features designed to allay concerns of people throughout the area about the capacity of Watford General Hospital to take the load.
A brand new ‘superhospital’ was to be built at Hatfield. Watford hospital was to be completely remodelled before any downgrading of A&E services at either Hemel Hempstead or Welwyn was put into effect.
Hemel Hempstead would still cater for around 80 per cent of emergency patients from the area and would have a purpose-built elective surgery centre.
The immense problem of access to the Watford hospital would be eased by building a new road to avoid having to use Vicarage Road. The relevant primary care services would be in place before the hospital reorganisation was implemented.
Every single one of these vital promises has been broken, leaving us with the catastrophe that confronts us now. The plan for a new hospital at Hatfield (including a cancer centre) was scrapped in 2006.
There has been very little redevelopment at Watford to deal with its decaying estate while Hemel’s A&E department was closed in early 2009. Hemel’s Urgent Care Centre deals with far fewer patients than the 80 per cent claimed and there is no specially built elective care unit.
The promised new road is still a distant dream and would in any case not improve access from Dacorum. There has been no noticeable growth of primary care services, rather the reverse.
Even worse, hospital bed numbers were actually substantially reduced as part of the reorganisation, something that I don’t remember being mentioned in the public consultation.
Meanwhile the population continues to both age and grow – 11,000 new homes are planned for Hemel Hempstead.
It’s fine to keep on mouthing the mantra about caring for people in the community rather than in hospital but unless the services provided are high quality, and therefore probably at least as expensive as hospital provision, it will be a hugely risky approach which is unlikely to cut the need for hospital beds overall.
We need policy-makers of a calibre to sort out the appalling mess that their predecessors – of all political parties – have left us in this area. Even though the hospital is on their doorstep the current position is surely no more comfortable for residents of Watford than it is for those of Dacorum or St Albans. The present health set-up is simply not fit for purpose. Where are the leaders and managers with the vision to produce and to implement a strategy that will work for the people of this relatively well-off corner of one of the world’s most prosperous countries?