WITH a new patients protest group and 1,300 signatures added to paper and online petitions in just two weeks, pressure is mounting on Borders health chiefs over the possible closure of the hydrotherapy pool at Borders General Hospital.
The pool could be closed next year if plans for a new mental health and outpatients department are give the green light.
NHS Borders says the number of people that use the pool is relatively small and the current waiting time is three weeks – well within the local waiting time target of nine weeks. It has also said hydrotherapy would still be available – but it is unlikely it would be at the BGH.
But the health authority’s chief executive, Calum Campbell, has now been forced to issue denials after claims that a senior physiotherapist has resigned over the issue and that hospital staff had been ordered to sign ‘gagging’ orders to prevent them publicly discussing the matter.
It was a Freedom of Information request from the new Borders Patients Action Group (BPAG) which sought details of any gagging order, as well as wanting to know what consultation has been carried out over the review of physiotherapy facilities.
The group has also appealed to Scottish public health minister, Michael Matheson – who was in Tweedbank on Friday to chair the NHS Borders annual review meeting – informing him that switching pool provision away from the hospital to a school or hotel setting would be inappropriate.
“The school pool that was mentioned – at Wilton [primary school] in Hawick – is for educational purposes, is only waist deep and used daily by schoolchildren,” states the BPAG.
“If a pool is to be commandeered by NHS and suitably adapted then this needs to be done before the present purpose-built pool is decommissioned, so that patients are not left in limbo unable to continue with treatment and thus pushed into more chronic conditions that might have been averted.”
Pat Usher, from Galashiels, spent 16 years working as a physiotherapist at the BGH and says the hydrotherapy pool is unique.
“To float on warm water using floatation aids and to exercise without gravity is the closest feeling to being in outer space that any of us will experience,” she told us.
“Who would begrudge a chairbound person the euphoria engendered by an hour of effortless movement in the freedom of water?”
The query over whether a member of the hospital’s physiotherapy staff had resigned came from Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale MSP Christine Grahame, who said she had been informed about the resignation by a senior health professional.
“But the chief executive of NHS Borders assures me this is not the case. If it had been true it would be an unacceptable position to put members of staff in,” Ms Grahame said.
Commenting on the health authority’s suggestion that local swimming pools could be utilised, Ms Grahame highlighted the case of one of her local constituents who suffers from arthritis.
“To expect people with this crippling disorder, not to mention those recovering from stroke, to attend a local swimming pool where conditions will be far from ideal, is simply outrageous,” she said.
And the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) says the reaction of patient groups to the threatened closure, shows how much they value the service.
“Physiotherapists working in hydrotherapy report very positive outcomes for their patients and we would urge that a solution be found to keep this pool open and serving the public,” said Kenryck Lloyd-Jones, CSP Policy Officer for Scotland.
The issue also surfaced at last week’s full session of Scottish Borders Council, when Councillor Councillor Catriona Bhatia (Tweeddale West, LD), Executive Member for Health, said discussions with Mr Campbell had led her to understand that no firm decisions had yet been made over the pool, and that clinicians and other staff within the BGH were currently considering the proposals.
“NHS Borders do have clear guidelines for consulting with staff and the public, and whilst due to the short timescales involved this has been challenging, I have been assured that they will continue to engage with a wider range of staff, patients and public as the proposals progress,” she said.