EMERGENCY heart surgery patients in Edinburgh will have to travel to Glasgow for life-saving surgery next weekend, after clinical staff refused to provide out-of-hours cover.
The team of ‘clinical perfusionists’, that ensure patients get enough oxygen during high-risk procedures, have told bosses at NHS Lothian that they will not work out-of-hours shifts in protest at long-term shortages in their numbers.
The small group of perfusionists, that recently negotiated a 20% pay rise, have planned the walk-out for the weekend of April 26, meaning critically ill patients will have to be transferred from Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary to Glasgow for surgery.
Patients suffering heart attacks and chest traumas are among those that will be affected.
NHS Lothian said it was “working around the clock” to try to provide on-call cover during the affected weekend.
But a senior medical source at the board said patients lives were being put at risk if they were not operated on within the vital first “golden hour” from the point of trauma.
A senior medical source at NHS Lothian, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “Perfusionists are an integral part of cardiothoracic theatre and they feel they have been taken advantage of for far too long, and now things have come to a head.
“They have said they are not going to work over and above their contracted hours and won’t supervise locums even if NHS Lothian manage to source them. It means the service won’t run.
“Not this weekend but the following weekend but the following weekend it means emergency patients who need an operation that requires a perfusionist will be sent to Glasgow. Its going to be one to two hours before a patient will see the inside of an operating theatre.
“There’s no doubt that will post a significant threat to life and could quite easily mean the difference between living and dying.”
There are currently seven-and-a-half fill time equivalent roles for clinical perfusionists in NHS Lothian, but just three-and-a-half positions are filled.
The health board has been relying on locums to fill rotas, which costs significantly more, and does not routinely fill out-of-hours cover.
A source close to the perfusionists team said they were tired of covering the “brutal” on-call rota and said one staff member could end up providing cover for seven days in a row.
The source said: “They haven’t been able to recruit staff for many years now and it’s got to the situation that there is less than half of the staff they should have available.
“If people have a heart attack in Edinburgh next weekend, it won’t be the best idea and there’s potential for serious harm.
“Managers have been warned for a long, long time that there is a problem and that something was going to go seriously wrong, but they’ve been told to ignore it.”
Sarah Boyak, Labour MSP for Lothian, said the development is “deeply worrying”.
She said: “It’s vital that urgent action is taken to ensure that skilled staff are recruited to fill these vacancies. I’m particularly concerned to hear that this service has been understaffed for some time. There should be a process to avoid this happening again in this or any other NHS Lothian service.”
Tom Waterson, Unison branch chair for Lothian, said he was “extremely disappointed” by the perfusionists move, particularly due to the 20% pay rise they negotiated last month.
He said: “I am aware of staffing shortages. But they went to the Scottish Terms and Conditions Committee just last month and it was agreed that they would receive 20 percent on top of their wage because they were short staffed. They got what they asked for.”
NHS Lothian has planned no cardiac surgery operations for the affected weekend, but if the hospital remains understaffed then emergency patients will have to be treated in Glasgow.
Typically three patients a month are admitted to Lothian emergency department with chest trauma or aortic dissection.
One patient, Sally McPhail, 25, from Edinburgh, is preparing for her third open heart surgery operation.
She said: “I hope there will be some sort of resolution to this as soon as possible. I am surprised by it. They need to do anything they can to stop things like this happening.”
Dr David Farquharson, NHS Lothian’s medical director, said: “NHS Lothian are working around the clock to ensure that we are able to provide on-call cover within the cardiac perfusion team over the weekend of April 26.
“Contingency plans are being drawn up to ensure that any emergency patients requiring perfusion services are able to be treated in another health board area over that weekend.
“We are currently recruiting for positions within the perfusion team but have so far been unsuccessful.
“We will continue with our efforts to recruit new staff to these positions and hope to make appointments in the very near future.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are aware of a range of issues in relation to recruitment of the perfusionists and are working with NHS Scotland employers to address them. We have been assured that contingency arrangements are in place.”