Wide view of white hospital buildings showing grass below and sky above.

St Helier Hospital not fit for purpose but patients express support

Maternity services of St Helier Hospital in Merton were rated ‘requires improvement’ by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) this month, but proposals to move the hospital have been met with opposition.

Inspectors described problems with staff training, competence and availability; ineffective safety and emergency equipment; insufficient medicine and record keeping processes; poor leadership and oversight; and an environment that was not fit for purpose.

They registered an ‘extreme risk’, after finding emergency resuscitaires on wards across the services were out of date.

A spokesperson for the hospital said: “We have already taken steps to improve and strengthen our maternity services.”

The hospital says they have invested more than £2 million to increase staffing, have made some improvement works on the estate, and improved oversight, record keeping, and equipment checks.

The CQC simultaneously released a patient survey of 131 mothers, who scored the care provided by St Helier’s as the best in London.

Trust Group Chief Executive Jacqueline Totterdell said: “We are making improvements in our care by listening to the lived experiences of women and birthing people, and it’s wonderful to hear so many feel they have been treated with kindness and compassion in our hospitals.”

Despite this, when the government’s New Hospital Programme allocated funding in 2020, the area’s NHS commissioning groups proposed to move some of St Helier’s key services, including maternity, paediatric and emergency departments, to a yet-to-be constructed site in Belmont.

The hospital trust said the decision was largely made to solve ‘environment’ issues that St Helier has been facing for years – 98% of the estate, with buildings that predate the NHS, is in a ‘very poor’ condition.

But statistics from Merton Council claim that the move would displace more than 50,000 residents from the most deprived areas of the borough for healthcare.

The relocation would increase travel times and disproportionately impact the poorest areas of Merton – like residents of St Helier Estate, which neighbours the hospital.

People living in deprived areas are also up to 2.3 times more likely to require emergency department services, according to 2021/22 census data from the Office for National Statistics.

Following this, concerns were raised over worsening health inequality, something which the CQC praised in the maternity services, stating: “The service had a strong focus on health equity.”

Merton councillor and Cabinet Member for Health Peter McCabe said: “It’s a tale of two cities. One has multiple problems of poverty and deprivation, and the other is very affluent.

“And moving the hospital to Belmont just seems bonkers.”

There are also concerns that the plans, which the National Audit Office revealed have not been allocated funding or a completion time frame, have resulted in the current hospital buildings being consistently underfunded for essential maintenance and repair, contributing to their dilapidated condition.

Councillor McCabe added: “Relying on the promise of a brand new, gleaming hospital to solve all your problems puts you in a situation where you’re neglecting the patients who are right there in front of you, and that’s unacceptable.

“Many of the residents were born there, and their parents and grandparents were born there, and they really have affection for the hospital.

“They recognise that the staff are doing heroic work in the most difficult of conditions, and the community is always grateful to them for what they do.”

Polling data released by The Health Foundation demonstrates that this community affection for NHS services is somewhat unique.

In the UK, only 39% of people think the NHS is providing a good service locally, while 80% think that the pressure and workload on NHS staff has got worse over the past two years.

Featured image credit: George Rex via Flickr under (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

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