Health chiefs want public feedback on a range of options to shape the future of health care across Caithness.
They have confirmed plans to include a comprehensive review of beds at all the county’s NHS facilities.
A consultation process will follow “as soon as possible, this year” for people to consider “options about upcoming developments”.
The exercise will decide the future of Thurso’s Dunbar Hospital, which has been a focus of intense closure speculation.
In the wake of a routine meeting of a group overseeing the redesign of local adult health services, a board spokesman said: “The consultation will include possible options for Dunbar and a review of beds in all of our (Caithness) facilities.”
He said staff were continuing to develop community services to reduce a reliance on hospital beds with people increasingly cared for in their own homes.
Asked what “upcoming developments” and “review of beds” meant, he said: “Options to be developed prior to the consultation process for the Dunbar could include that it becomes a health and social care hub where all the community services are based at one site.
“We would want to have beds – including palliative care beds – on site. Another option could be more ambulatory-type outpatient care at the hospital.”
Local politicians and campaigners welcomed the promise of consultation.
Bill Fernie, chairman of the pressure group Caithness Health Action Team (Chat), said: “We’d be concerned, however, if this exercise were to mask a reduction in local services. We want more consultants to hold local clinics.”
Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP Ed Mountain said: “Continued prevarication about services in Caithness causes the very problem that we’re trying to address – the inability to recruit people to work in the NHS locally.”
Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “It’s good there’s a recognition that too many people are having to travel too far for treatment. This is an opportunity to build a service that meets people’s needs.”
In response to a Chat campaign, almost 3,000 people have now sent postcards to Holyrood, spelling out the health needs of Caithness.
Scottish Health Secretary Shona Robison has agreed to meet Chat leaders in the near future.