12:00 - 11 March 2002
The jobs of two nurses who act as a lifeline for hundreds of people with multiple sclerosis have had a last-minute reprieve for the second successive year.
But health officials have been unable to guarantee their long-term future, as the latest batch of funding is set to run out again in the summer.
The North Staffordshire Hospital nurses - Nikki Embry and Claire Rowley - act as go-betweens, bridging around 600 patients and specialists in the disease. They run clinics, staff a telephone line, conduct ward rounds and even make home visits.
But since their appointment three years ago, the £55,000 annual cost of their salaries and administrative back-up has come mainly from grants and drug companies.
The NHS chipped in a year ago to continue their work - but the nurses have faced similar uncertainties recently.
Now, enough money has been found to safeguard the posts until May, when the biggest-ever clinical trial into the benefits of the MS drug beta interferon begins.
But leaders of patients' and carers' groups today criticised the way such a crucial service was "forever living from hand to mouth".
Eric Budworth, chairman of the North Staffordshire Multiple Sclerosis Society, said: "It is disgraceful how the future of these jobs is forever under threat. Despite the obvious benefits, the jobs still haven't been made substantive posts funded indefinitely through the NHS."
The posts had initially been created to monitor the progress of patients being put on beta interferon. But according to the MS society, their sheer enthusiasm saw their roles developing into a comprehensive nursing service. Mr Budworth said: "This service is invaluable for patients and carers alike."
Consultant neurologist Dr Graham Boddie confirmed the existing finance arrangements would keep the nurses in post until May. At that point, the new beta interferon trial was due to start and a business case for more funding was being drawn up at the hospital.
He said: "There are no guarantees yet that this case will be successful, however."