Patients receiving life-changing diagnoses and treatments should be treated with more compassion by the Western Isles Health Board, according to a group of patient support organisations.

A petition is being launched today (Friday December 14th) by the group, pleading for better understanding and a smoother system when patients ask for help with travel costs for escorts travelling with them to mainland appointments.

At the moment, patients who need medical help when travelling to the mainland, or from Barra to Stornoway, are allowed expenses for an escort to travel with them, but recent changes designed to contain the patient travel budget do not include allowance for expenses when the patient is about to receive a distressing diagnosis or is undergoing treatment in mainland hospitals.

A consortium of patient organisations, including Western Isles Cancer Care Initiative (WICCI), Lewis and Harris Women’s Cancer Support and Hebridean Men’s Cancer Group, Neuro Hebrides, Barra Cancer Support Group and Uist Cancer Care Forum, have tried in vain to persuade the health board to allow for more flexibility in the rules. They’re also asking for a better system so that patients can get decisions quickly when a sudden need to travel for healthcare arises.

WICCI development manager Helen Sandison said: “We have tried to speak to the health board but they are not prepared to respond to our concerns. We have numerous examples of times when the current system does not work, but without any other avenues to address thus systemic problem we have been pushed to a public petition as a last resort.

“We totally recognise and understand the budget constraints and the need to clamp down on unnecessary travel costs, but there are some cases where it is absolutely necessary for patients to have an escort with them and we have outlined these on the petition and urge the health board to adopt these special cases. They are when a patient attends a mainland appointment for a potentially life-changing diagnosis and, once diagnosed, when they attend a mainland appointment for their treatment plan.”

The groups also want to see a better system of approval for escort travel costs. GPs have withdrawn from the process of agreeing or denying applications for costs and these have now to be approved by NHS Western Isles medical director Dr Angus McKellar.

Helen said: “People are now spending hours trying to get in touch with the medical director for a decision on urgent travel and are frequently unable to reach him. If they get a negative decision, they are entitled to appeal – but Dr McKellar also deals with the appeals. It’s wrong that it is so hard to get a decision and someone impartial should deal with the appeals.

“Going through an appeal is the last thing people should be having to deal with when they are so unwell, under stress of a possible diagnosis or receiving treatment.”

As an alternative, the groups propose that specialist nurses directly involved with a patient’s care – such as Macmillan nurses or the MS or dementia care specialists – should be able to recommend approval of escorts. This demand has also been added to the petition.

The petition becomes available online today (Friday December 14th) at change.org and paper copies will also circulate through local groups and businesses. It’s addressed to Scottish health secretary Jeane Freeman MSP and to members of Western Isles Health Board and it will also be submitted to the Scottish Parliament petitions committee.

Campaign co-ordinator Helen Sandison said: “Patients sometimes have no choice but to travel to the mainland and this is an issue specific to the Western Isles. We understand that there are plans afoot for video-conferencing and other remote solutions, and we welcome these, but until such time as they are in place and shown to be working people have no choice.

“NHS Western Isles should ask for additional government support to help make this system compassionate and to care for their patients as a health board is supposed to do. Patients should not be asked to subsidise the unavoidable costs of their own healthcare.”

Picture shows representatives of some of the supporting community organisations at the launch of the petition.