A review of all in-patient health services in the Borders will be launched in April and take over a year to complete.
A detailed timescale for the exercise, which will consider how care is delivered at the Borders General Hospital and the region’s four community hospitals, was unanimously agreed at last week’s meeting of the board of NHS Borders.
And with that decision came more assurances that there are no plans to close the community hospitals which each provide 23 beds in Peebles, Hawick, Kelso and Duns.
“There is no plan to close community hospitals and no hidden agenda,” stated health board chairman John Raine.
“What the board has agreed to embark upon is a rational and sensible way to look at how services might be better organised within tightening budgets.
“Unfortunately, the debate so far has been hijacked by controversy about hospital closures.”
The review will dovetail with the ongoing integration of health and social care services, traditionally delivered separately by NHS Borders and Scottish Borders Council respectively.
Councillor Catriona Bhatia, chair of the shadow integration board, accused local and national politicians of “scaremongering” over the future of the four hospitals.
“This has been a race to the bottom which has done nothing and will do nothing to contribute to better care for Borderers, which is what this review is aiming to do,” said Mrs Bhatia.
The study will get under way in April with the appointment of a review group which, in May and June, will collect data based on an analysis of all those currently using in-patient care in various settings across the region.
The first “dialogue with communities” will take place in June and July before best practice approaches to care nationally and internationally are examined.
Further community consultation is planned for September before “all potential ideas are considered and subject to robust appraisal” by November.
A shortlist of options will be drawn up and prioritised by January 2016 prior to “conversations with all key stakeholders” by next March.
Full implementation of agreed options by the board is earmarked for July next year.
NHS Borders medical director Dr Sheena MacDonald stressed the need for NHS hospital beds to be available for those most in need.
“As we move towards 2020, there will be a requirement to deliver care in very different ways, maximising self care and community support, and avoiding hospital admissions wherever possible,” said Dr MacDonald.
“From time to time, people will experience episodes of ill-health and we need to ensure we are in a position to look after ill people in hospital for when that care is needed.
“A lack of planning could mean care is delivered in a reactive way and our acute services are likely to be stretched beyond their limits.”