Groups representing patients with long-term and life-changing health conditions in the Western Isles say they are prepared to protest and petition if NHS Western Isles won’t change the way it applies rules on travel costs for patient escorts.

NHS Western Isles has been more rigorous in recent months when faced with applications for travel costs for patient escorts – family or friends who travel with patients when they go to the mainland for hospital appointments and treatments.

Now patient support groups throughout the Western Isles have banded together to focus a campaign demanding a more sympathetic approach to individual cases. They are demanding a round-table discussion with the medical director and chief executive of NHS Western Isles.

The Hebridean Men’s Cancer Group, Uist Cancer Care Forum, Barra Cancer Group, Western Isles Carer Support Network, Advocacy Western Isles and Western Isles Cancer Care Initiative now plan to insist on a group meeting and then, if necessary, to protest and to petition until the rules are changed, or applied in a more understanding way.

WICCI development manager Helen Sanderson told today (Wednesday August 1st): “There are lots of examples from these groups of where the new system has failed. We have heard heart-breaking stories of people crying in the departure lounge of the airport and being comforted by strangers.

“People travelling to the mainland for appointments can spend a full day, from 7am to 6pm, on their own. They need someone there to help them process the information from the appointment and for the hours when they are going to and from the hospital.

“We heard of one patient who had an escort approved when they travelled for a diagnosis, but when they were recalled for urgent treatment for their condition, one week later, the escort’s travel costs were not approved. In that case a Macmillan specialist spent four hours trying to reach the medical director to get him to approve an escort. In the end a GP approved the cost and took the responsibility on themselves. There is no procedure in place if the medical director is not available.”

Chief executive Gordon Jamieson told MSP Alasdair Allan in a letter last month (July 17th) that the board did not dispute the benefit, or the desire patients have to be accompanied. He said: “The underpinning policy itself has not changed. What we have is a stricter application on a more consistent basis of the criteria themselves.”

But the charities say they have no quarrel with the board seeking to apply their policy consistently, as long as the system itself is humane.

Helen Sandison said: “We understand that there are budget constraints and that people abuse the system, but there needs to be some way to support people who are having a life-changing diagnosis. Shetland have done exactly this, changing their process because of the strength of feeling in their islands.

“We just want the board to listen – it’s an opportunity to sit down and speak to them. Do they think this is the way to treat the people of the Western Isles? Does this treatment match their slogan, ‘the best at what we do?’”