Young professionals and their families are being discouraged from taking up prime jobs in Caithness amid fears over local health services, it has been claimed.
Alarm bells have sounded because of the downgrading of maternity services at the main hospital in Wick and a catalogue of well documented emergencies involving 100-mile ambulance runs for medical expertise only available at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness.
Highland Council’s Caithness area leader Gillian Coghill is thrilled at the prospect of massive job creation but gravely concerned that health service gaps are becoming a deterrent.
“We live in exciting times in terms of jobs potential,” she said. “What the NHS must do is build confidence to show they’re delivering the safest possible service.
“They need to demonstrate they’re not doing it because they can, but in the interests of health and safety.”
She recalled that big business does its homework, gauging an area’s quality of health services rather than gambling on it, citing an example of a battery manufacturer that took soundings from the local community.
“There’s been a lot of negativity surrounding changes in the maternity service. We need to ensure it doesn’t deter employment prospects,” she said.
The two sides in the local health debate continue to argue their respective cases on a regular basis after a series of tragedies and close-calls.
A rash of public and private debate on the issues culminated last week in a head-to-head between health chiefs, community leaders and representatives of the pressure group the Caithness Health Action Team (Chat).
Its secretary Nicola Sinclair said: “We can only attract the professionals that we need if we have the right infrastructure in place.
“I have friends from Wick who moved away for university and now won’t return because they’re too worried about what’s in place for families.
“I think the ambulance service and NHS Highland are in denial about the extent of the problems. Solutions need to be found because the huge number of transfers, of which maternity is a tiny proportion, are taking ambulances out of the county for long periods of time leaving a shortage of emergency ambulances.”
Senior Wick councillor Bill Fernie, who chairs the Chat group, said: “The publicity about reduced services will affect some people’s decisions about coming here.”
Scottish Ambulance Service (SAS) general manager for the area Milne Weir said: “We’re continuing to work closely with our partners to ensure patients get the quickest and most appropriate resource.”
NHS Highland chairman David Alston, who was in Wick for last Friday’s discussions, said: “Following the tragic and avoidable death of a baby in Caithness, the board decided to put in place a safer system of maternity care led by highly trained midwives.
“It’s difficult to understand how this can be accurately described as a ‘downgrading’ of services.
“We’re committed to working with mothers, families, clinicians, the SAS, local politicians and the community to make it the best possible community maternity unit.”
He added: “We need to work together to overcome unnecessary negativity about perceived gaps and present Caithness as it is – a safe, dynamic, and welcoming place with a proud history and a bright future.”