THE Scottish Government has moved to tackle the crisis gripping the country's hospitals by unveiling a £100 million package to provide more elderly care and reduce the pressure on wards.
On Thursday, Health Secretary Shona Robison is expected to announce at Holyrood plans for a blueprint to look after the growing pensioner population.
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Meanwhile, a new poll has found the SNP is most trusted of the parties to look after the NHS in Scotland.
The Herald's NHS: Time for Action campaign has been calling for the last 18 months for a review of capacity across the health service and social care to ensure the right resources are in the right place to look after the rising number of frail people.
The £100m is intended to tackle delayed discharge and to help set up services which prevent patients from being hospitalised. The money is being given to the new partnership bodies being created by health boards and councils to oversee care services from April.
Now she is expected to develop a plan to tackle the wider problems in the health service.
Ms Robison, who is three months into the job, said: "I recognise the need for a longer term strategy and I will have more to say about that in the debate (on Thursday.)"
The moves follow repeated concern about the soaring number of delayed discharges - patients who are stuck in hospital beds waiting for care to be organised in the community.
Rises of more than 100 per cent in a year were reported last autumn. The shortages of free beds also made it more difficult for hospitals to cope with a surge in illness at the start of 2015 and patients had to queue for hours on trolleys in accident and emergency departments until space could be found.
Ms Robison said: "What we are going to be doing from government is offering integrated partnerships real and consistent support to make the changes they need to make. We are going to be making sure they are doing the things that work."
The success of these joint bodies will be measured in specific areas including the rate of emergency hospital admissions, the proportion of care services given good grades by inspectors and the number of people discharged from wards on time.
Theresa Fyffe, director of the Royal College of Nursing Scotland, said the £100m was "an important first step in starting to tackle the pressures in our hospitals."
She continued: "If the joining up of health and social care is to be successful, the integrated partnerships which are now being set up will need additional resources. Local councils are short of funding and dependent on health boards to provide more money for social care, but with the current pressures in our hospitals, this is just not possible."
She stressed the need to track how the new money is used and the benefits it delivers.
Professor Cam Donaldson, an expert in health economics at Glasgow Caledonian University, expressed concern the £100m on its own was "just the usual winter stop-gap". He said a much more radical rethink was required to ensure resources were moved from providing crisis care in hospitals to the care sector.
He also questioned whether the law creating the new partnerships was enough to break down barriers between councils and health boards.
"I am not convinced that money (the £100m) will go to the right places," he said. "The problem is that the money continues to disappear down the black hole of the acute sector."
Ms Robison said the integrated joint boards would be required to forecast demand in both hospitals and the community and plan the services required to meet those needs. She added: "I am an optimist. I think we genuinely have the best opportunity to make progress here. We have never had integrated partnerships moving from two systems, to an integrated system that has a budget both are responsible for."
A taskforce has been set up between the Scottish Government and council body the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to support the drive to reduce delayed discharges.
Cllr Peter Johnston, Cosla's health and well-being spokesman, said: "This is a timely investment from the Scottish Government - amidst a challenging operating environment for councils and health boards. The new Health and Social Care Partnerships will be forming in April and this resource will act as a real catalyst in making inroads into delayed discharge."
Ms Robison was reprimanded by Holyrood Presiding Officer Tricia Marwick for failing to announce the new delayed discharge policy to parliament before briefing the media. Ms Marwick said the breach of protocol was a "gross discourtesy" to parliament.
The latest survey, by Survation, found 42 per cent of Scots trusted the Nationalists most to run the health service, compared with 20 per cent who had most faith in Labour.
The SNP came out on top despite more people believing the quality of care in the NHS has deteriorated since the party took power.
The poll showed 32 per cent of Scots felt NHS care has worsened since 2007, compared with 22 per cent who believe it has improved.
Thirty per cent said it was neither better nor worse.