NHS Highland has not advertised any of the three vacant surgeon posts at the north’s second busiest hospital since November 2016 – relying on costly locums instead, it has emerged.
Cover at the Belford in Fort William has cost £737,000 since March last year – £162,000 more than if all three jobs were filled by staff members.
The total spend on locums – surgical, medical and anaesthetics – at the hospital over this 11-month timeframe is £1.19 million.
An NHS Highland spokesman said health chiefs have been reviewing the job description to make the posts more attractive, and hope to start advertising soon.
But Caol and Mallaig councillor Allan Henderson branded the situation “disgusting”.
He said: “The Belford Hospital has always been held up as an exemplar of rural general hospitals. If they can’t fill posts at the Belford then they won’t fill them at any of the rural general hospitals.
“It (The Belford) is an extremely busy hospital and has been built up on trauma and stabilisation over the years. That’s difficult to deliver if we don’t have the people on the floor. It’s all about saving lives and having surgeon posts filled is hugely important.
“It does not mean it has to cost a lot of money. They know where the people with these skills will be looking and they need to target the right advertising portals.”
The NHS Highland spokesman said two surgical locums have been providing cover at the Belford Hospital since the job description review started last February.
He said that the health board last advertised for a substantive consultant surgeon post on November 28, 2016, which resulted in two applications that were not short listed.
But he stressed that since 2014 the board has advertised for three substantive and five locum surgeons – in either the BMJ, Universal Jobs or Medical Jobs publications – yet none could be filled, meaning a different approach was needed.
The spokesman said the idea behind the review is to develop contracts for consultant surgeons that will allow them to be based at the Belford but rotate with other consultants at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness on a regular basis.
He added: “In that way, not only will the Belford-based consultants be able to update their surgical skills in Inverness, but local patients will also benefit from Raigmore-based surgeons attending the Belford.”
However Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Kate Forbes said: “There is a place for making job adverts look attractive, but that does not take over a year.
“I am in despair at the lack of progress in recruiting surgeons at the Belford. It has been over a year and it should not require political intervention to fill these roles.
“NHS Highland’s remit is to deliver healthcare across the Highlands. The hint is in the name in that it is NHS Highland, not just NHS Raigmore.
“At the moment, I fear that Skye, Raasay and Fort William get forgotten and the good people of those places have to travel to Inverness when they could be seen locally instead.”
The Belford Hospital employs consultants in three different specialties – surgeons, anaesthetists and physicians.
One of three consultant physician posts at the hospital has also been vacant since earlier this year and a locum is providing cover. All three consultant anaesthetists are in post but one of them is currently off work and a locum is covering.
A part-time consultant geriatrician is also based at the hospital who covers NHS Highland’s west area.