The Scottish Government’s cabinet secretary for health and social care has signalled a positive approach to the needs of island patients travelling for life-altering diagnoses at mainland hospitals, under questioning from two islands MSPs at Holyrood today (Thursday 27 January).
And his apparent support for a more open approach to patient support needs has been welcomed by the Western Isles charity co-ordinating a campaign to get a more sympathetic ear for patients who have to travel for treatment and diagnosis.
Humza Yousaf MSP was responding initially to a scheduled question from Na -h-Eileanan an Iar MSP Alasdair Allan during general questions in the Scottish Parliament’s chamber this morning.
Dr Allan’s pre-notified question was: “To ask the Scottish Government what financial support is offered to patients and authorised escorts who need to travel significant distances for medical appointments.”
Mr Yousaf responded by saying that the health department was continuing to work with health boards to reduce the need for travel for patients where possible, using access services like the ‘near me’ remote consultation process.
But, he added: “Where travel is necessary we expect boards to support patients to identify and access support.”
In his supplementary question, Mr Allan raised the issue of patients travelling to mainland hospitals for life-changing diagnoses without being able to afford an escort or companion to be with them for their appointment.
He said: “The charity Western Isles Cancer Care Initiative (WICCI) recently recorded the fastest-ever response for a patient who had a patient escort refused by the health board.
“For people who live on the mainland it must be strange to imagine having to undergo something as worrying as cancer treatment without the support of a loved one. However, in the past few years this has become an all-too-common scenario in the Western Isles, since the handling of patient escort applications changed.
“Does the cabinet secretary agree that patients shouldn’t be disadvantaged in terms of the emotional support they can draw on, just because they live on an island?”
In response the cabinet secretary for health said: “I wholeheartedly agree with that point and I think Alasdair Allan makes it very well. For people who live on the mainland, you wouldn’t expect to go through that situation, that worry and that anxiety on your own.
“I’m very sympathetic to the point that he makes, in relation not just to cancer diagnosis but to any diagnosis that could be life-altering, and so I will take this issue away and look at it in more detail.
“It will obviously come with a financial impact, but he is absolutely right to put patient care and patient safety at the heart of it, so I am sympathetic and I will keep the member updated.”
Dr Allan’s questions were followed up by Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant, who said: “There was a review of patient travel due to take place, but was delayed since August last year because of the pandemic, so could I ask when that review will take place?
“It is an urgent requirement – the criteria and reimbursements date back to 1996 and don’t account for inflation. Would he also confirm that the review will be subject to an island impact assessment?”
Mr Yousaf answered: “The member is right that a review was due to be undertaken, but of course the pandemic unfortunately has meant that that has been delayed, so we will look to bring forward that review as soon as possible.
“I’m sure she understands that our (health) boards and indeed our civil service teams are still under immense pressure.
“In terms of the latter point she raises, on ensuring that a review is the subject of an island impact assessment, I will ensure that is the case.”
In a statement immediately following the parliamentary session, Western Isles Cancer Care Initiative said: “It was reassuring to listen to the response by Humza Yousaf, cabinet secretary, stating that health boards are expected to support patients, ensuring ‘patient care is at the heart of any decision making.’
“Alasdair Allan MSP raised a compelling argument that travel to hospital appointments is very different if you live on an island like the Western Isles and that the importance of the support of a loved one is crucial at that time.
“It was very reassuring to hear the health secretary wholeheartedly agreeing with this point and (saying) that the worry and anxiety at that time shouldn’t be something patients should have to do on their own.
“We also thank Rhoda Grant MSP for raising the issue of the patient travel review, highlighting the criteria dictating the policy is woefully out of date and needs to be urgently reviewed.
“It was also encouraging to hear that the review will be subject to an islands impact assessment. WICCI looks forward to being part of the review process.”
Dr Allan himself also commented immediately following the session. He said: “Western Isles patients being denied as escort has continued to be an issue and I’ve raised a number of cases with the health board in recent months.
“We simply should not have a situation where local charities like WICCI have to step in to fund an escort that has been denied by the health board.
“I am grateful for the Cabinet Secretary’s understanding and positive response. I understand that the pandemic has held back work on things like the Scotland-wide review of arrangements for the provision of financial support for patients. However, we do need to see changes in this area sooner rather than later.”