Health board pleads for community’s support as it faces ‘perfect storm’ of unprecedented demand and staff shortages

Health services are facing a “perfect storm” of unprecedented demand, reduced capacity and the ongoing effects of the pandemic, which is posing huge challenges.

NHS Shetland has stressed it is still there for patients in need – but has urged folk to help them cope.

During a media briefing this morning, NHS Shetland medical director Kirsty Brightwell and primary services manager Lisa Watt described a fraught situation which has been building over recent weeks and shows no signs of abating.

While pressures are being felt across the sector, they said Lerwick and Brae health centres were facing the greatest difficulties.

Dr Brightwell said a culmination of factors, from the pandemic to staff shortages and unprecedented demand. had seen the pressure build. 

The health board is desperately trying to provide the right balance in its messaging to patients – letting folk know they are there for those in need while also highlighting the increased  workload so people understand the complexities of the situation.

“It’s thinking about how we as a community can pull together and support each other,” Dr Brightwell said.

“What we don’t want is for people who are really ill not to be able to see someone, because we are here – every day, we are here – and we need that message to come through.”

Despite encouraging progress in the fight against the pandemic, with high vaccination rates and reducing case numbers, nationally, leading to the move “beyond level zero” from next week, the health board is still facing a multitude of challenges.

Currently, the requirement to minimise face to face contact, which requires phone calls, emails and triaging, means it can take up to three times as long to help some patients.

Further issues around PPE and mandatory cleaning are adding to that burden.

On top of that, staff are having self-isolate at short notice, while others are dealing with family sickness.

While Brae Heath Centre is back to capacity this week, it is struggling to cope with the demand that build up due to shortages last week.

And Lerwick Health Centre is down on GPs due to vacancies and people on leave or off sick.

Last week, the health board put out a message for emergency appointments only on Thursday and Friday.

While patients responded to the message, it resulted in even more calls this week.

“The backlog doesn’t go away,” Ms Watt said.

“We are just shifting it from one week to the next.”

Further complications have arisen in securing locum cover.

Ms Watt said a GP arranged to cover in Lerwick this week had been unable to travel to Shetland due to a shortage of suitable spaces on the ferry. Flights were also an issue.

“It really has been a perfect storm,” she said

Ms Watt, who has worked in primary care for 15 years added: “I’ve never seen the level of demand that we currently have .”

Among the reasons for the increased demand, is the backlog from the height of the pandemic when national screening programmes, including for bowl and breast cancer, were suspended.

Now they have resumed and the health board is trying to catch up with all those patients who would normally have been seen during that period.

People who stayed away from their GPs during the previous stages of the pandemic are also starting to come forward again.

“Now they’re really quite concerned or worried and just need that reassurance,” Ms Watt added.

“So we are certainly seeing a much higher and demand.”

While the pressures are significant, Dr Brightwell stressed “we are here and we are open and we want to take your calls”.

“But in order to manage at the moment – the complexity, the staffing shortage and the increased demand – we need your help,” she added.

“We need people to be thinking – can I look this up on NSH inform, can I speak to someone else, such as the community pharmacist.

“And if not, absolutely, we are not telling you not to call, we don’t want that message going out at all, but we need you to work with us.”


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