10 June 2001
By Tom Peterkin Health Correspondent
A LEADING group of hospital consultants have made a damning criticism of government health policy, warning that multiple sclerosis patients will be denied vital treatment because of NHS budget cuts.
The surgeons say thousands of seriously-ill patients will miss out on care and treatment following cuts ordered after Tayside hospitals overspent their budgets by £20m.
The claims are made in a letter sent to First Minister Henry McLeish and health minister Susan Deacon.
The revelation that the standard of treatment of MS patients is likely to fall further comes in the midst of Scotland on Sundayís campaign to raise awareness of the disease, which affects 10,400 Scots.
The Tayside experts warn it is not just people with MS that will be hit by the drugs, beds and staff crisis but also those with other brain disorders such as Parkinsonís disease, epilepsy, head injury and brain tumours.
The letter, signed by 16 specialists in the Tayside University Hospitals NHS Trust neurosciences and neurology departments, claims the cuts will result from policies designed to claw back a £20m debt. Tayside has the unenviable distinction of suffering from the worst financial deficit of all Scotlandís hospital authorities.
The consultants say in the letter: "Our department is required to make savings of £100,000. This year we face particular pressures because the new deal for junior doctors will significantly reduce staffing levels on the wards and require us to cut clinics.
"This pattern of chronic under-investment has led to disastrous and well publicised shortfalls in the provision of healthcare. This is largely due to a lack of resources and, as a consequence, our patients wait months for specialist appointments, investigations and operations.
"Clinicians in Tayside are therefore faced with fewer staff, rising workloads and spiralling patient expectations. We are also confronted with a government policy which is frankly contradictory.
"On the one hand we have the NHS plan which promises an increase in funding to raise standards, on the other we have the day-to-day reality of cuts in a service which is already failing many patients."
Dr Robert Swingler, a consultant neurologist at Ninewells Hospital, Dundee, and one of the signatories, said the financial difficulties meant doctors were on the verge of closing emergency wards at weekends. Another option, he said, was withdrawing a category of drugs known as botulinum which prevent spasms - a problem that plagues MS and other patients.
"The other thing we could do is cut the number of patients we see each year by a quarter," added Swingler, warning that proposed cuts would result in already lengthy waiting times increasing in the short term.
A spokeswoman for Tayside University Hospitals NHS Trust said it had made significant progress in the past year towards achieving the targets set out in its financial recovery plan. She added: "We are confident that Tayside will reach financial equilibrium in 2003 as planned."
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Executive said: "We will give consideration to the deficit once we are further down the road in the financial recovery process."