A petition seeking escort expenses when patients travel for life-changing medical treatment looks set to burst through its 1,500-signature target, less than a week after being launched.

A consortium of Western Isles patient support groups, including organisations from Lewis to Barra, got together to launch the petition, which calls on NHS Western Isles to review their policy on patient escort travel expenses.

The petition on change.org opened on Friday (December 14th) and is gathering pace, with signatories added by the minute. An initial target of 1,000 signatures was passed on Tuesday (December 18th) and a new target of 1,500 signatures now looks highly likely to be reached later today.

Paper copies of the petition are available via support groups and island businesses. It is addressed to Scottish Health Minister Jeane Freeman MSP and to all board members of NHS Western Isles, and has also been lodged with the petitions committee at the Scottish Parliament.

The petition calls for amendments to the patient escort policy implemented by Western Isles Health Board, specifically to allow anyone travelling for a potentially life-changing diagnosis, or for treatment for a life-changing illness, to be escorted by a family member or other supporter. It also demands that specialist nurses should be able to approve escort expenses, rather than all applications being channelled through the Medical Director of NHS Western Isles, as they are at present.

Western Isles Cancer Care Initiative (WICCI) is co-ordinating the campaign with Lewis and Harris Women’s Cancer Support Group, Hebridean Men’s Cancer Support Group, Uist Cancer Care Forum, Barra Cancer Care Forum and Neuro Hebrides. Acting on behalf of all the groups is WICCI development manager Helen Sandison.

Helen said: “We have been encouraged with the response to the petition, but we were not surprised.  We have been speaking to patients and their families for months now about this issue and along with the support organisations involved in the petition, we have heard some truly heart-breaking stories, that should not be happening to the residents of the Western Isles.”

Among those who have signed the petition online, a number of health professionals with detailed knowledge of patient experience have stated their opinions. Retired head of the Macmillan Cancer Care team Gill Chadwick said: “The Health Board claims to put patients first in all their decision making. This is clearly not the case when they refuse to fund an escort for patients who are in extremely vulnerable positions. As anyone who has ever been given significant (bad) news, most of the rest of the information isn’t heard, so leaves the individual unable to make sensible, informed decisions. An escort can help them concentrate on what matters to them thereby helping them to come to the right decision for them. The escort doesn’t make decisions on their behalf. Good luck with this petition. As some of you may know, I was the cancer lead for the Western Isles and tried, unsuccessfully, to get Board Directors to listen to these arguments before my retirement.”

Also signing is a respiratory specialist nurse. She said: “I feel it’s shocking that patients from the Western Isles might be given life changing news and due to financial problems might not be able to have family members present due to the cost of flights! I am present for a lot of these conversations and it's not a time for patients to be on their own. Being penalised for living on an Island is not just unfair, it’s also cruel for patients who are already dealing with life changing diseases. I hope WI Health Board reconsider.”

Patients have given their own experiences in support of their signatures. One said: “No one should have to travel for treatment alone. It's cruel and completely unnecessary. We shouldn't be penalised and have less care and support just because we live on an island and have no choice but to travel to the mainland for some treatments.”

Another commented: “To be alone when facing such a diagnosis is overwhelming, and having help through this process is important. A considerable amount of information is given to the patient who may not be in a fit state to take it in and remember it for later. To have the support of a family member at this time is crucial.”

Helen Sandison said: “We hope that the health board take some time to read some of the comments on the online petition page, it shows the depth of feeling amongst residents and those connected to the Western Isles. We hope that they can listen to our suggestions and work with us to implement them for the benefit of patients and their families.  We do not believe that these changes would have a massive budgetary implication, and they would make the whole patient journey a much more positive one.”

The petition will remain open until the middle of January, when it will be presented to health minister Jeane Freeman. She will be asked to intervene, should the health board fail to respond positively. The petition is also being lodged with the Scottish parliament’s petitions committee and will be considered by them in due course. Other avenues will be explored by the local groups should these routes prove unsuccessful.  

Helen Sandison said: “We would like to sincerely thank everyone who has shared the petition with friends and family and the many businesses across the Western Isles who have agreed to display the petition for those who do not
have access online.”