Medical secretaries are essential hospital support staff.
They form a vital link between consultants and patients. Though modestly paid, they carry major responsibilities, scheduling surgery and treatments such as radiology, updating records and writing to patients and their GPs. Many have the difficult job of dealing with patients who have just received bad news. They play an important role in delivering continuity of care to patients who can be vulnerable and upset.
As part of a £57 million cost-saving drive, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board (GGCHB) proposes to end the tradition of providing every consultant with a medical secretary. Instead consultants will be forced to share secretaries, half of whom will be demoted and sent to a typing pool.
The Herald has campaigned for the merging of back office functions in public services to save money in hard times but only if frontline services are not compromised. GGCHB is adamant that new technology means this change will have no adverse impact on the quality and safety of our services to patients.
How can it be so sure? Surgeons, the experts at the sharp end of the NHS, are so concerned at the downgrading of secretarial support that, in a statement to The Herald, they warn that patients will be put at risk. This follows a letter bearing the signatures of 80 consultant surgeons from the health board area warning management of this risk.
In the letter, the consultants claim their concerns are being ignored. The NHS is hardly a byword for administrative efficiency as things stand. Further delays in communications with GPs and breakdowns in the continuity of care would be not merely irritating but potentially dangerous for patients.
Because the secretaries' salaries are protected, very little will be saved by sending half to a typing pool. The board should reconsider.
Chief executive Robert Calderwood has said that new technology means people like him no longer need a full-time secretary. With respect, the job of a hospital consultant is different. The health and lives of thousands of patients rest on their shoulders. Under such circumstances a secretary is a necessity rather than a status symbol. Fast, accurate communication with patients and GP practices is crucial.
Sometimes the lessons of the past seem quickly forgotten. A decade ago The Herald broke the story of Dr Adrian Harnett, a highly respected oncologist at the height of his career who quit his post in Glasgow despite having no other job to go to.
It later emerged that the last straw had been that as one of the busiest cancer specialists in Britain, with 600 patients, he had gone 16 months without a secretary. He described the situation as "chaotic". How often would holidays, vacancies or illness mean that this situation would be repeated if consultants were forced to share secretaries?
In the inquiry into the notorious Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust, where 400 deaths were caused by poor care, whistleblowers identified the collapse of secretarial support as a key factor.
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