PATIENTS in the Borders are more likely than anywhere else in Scotland to have an operation cancelled for factors such as staff shortages, lack of beds and full theatres.

The latest national figures show that people waiting for a planned operation in NHS Borders were three times more likely than the Scottish average to have the procedure postponed in the past year, for reasons that had nothing to do with their condition or failure to attend.

The statistic is considered to be a key measure of how well hospitals and health boards are coping with demand.

The region's main hospital, the 274-bed Borders General in Melrose, has previously been at the centre of warnings over "exceptional pressure" on beds and spiralling rates of delayed discharge.

In most cases routine procedures such as hip and knee replacements or cataracts removals will be delayed to free up capacity, but occasionally urgent operations such as cancer surgery or heart bypasses can also be hit.

The Herald: Borders General Hospital Borders General Hospital

NHS Borders medical director, Dr Cliff Sharp, said the decision to cancel treatment was "not taken likely", but one local MSP said it was unfair that residents - many frail and elderly - were being made to wait too long.

Rachael Hamilton, Conservative MSP for Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, previously raised the issue in the Scottish Parliament in May following a string of complaints from constituents, including one who had had her operation cancelled twice in a row.

She said: "The Borders has a higher than average cancelled operations rate and this is simply unacceptable.

"It’s a serious inconvenience for patients, many of whom are in need of care or are vulnerable, and may well be travelling from outlying villages and remote areas far away.

"The SNP is in full control of the NHS, and the responsibility completely falls at its door."

In the 12 months to the end of June 2018, 350 out of 4892 scheduled surgeries in the Borders - 7.2% - were cancelled due to "capacity/non-clinical" reasons.

These can include theatres being swamped by unplanned emergency surgeries, vacancies and sickness among surgeons and support staff, or a lack of available hospital beds for planned admissions.

For Scotland as a whole, the figure was 2.4%, and it was also markedly lower in the neighbouring health boards of NHS Lothian and NHS Dumfries and Galloway at 2.7% and 1.75% respectively.

The second highest rate of "capacity/non-clinical" cancellations was in NHS Highland, at 4.4%.

Scotland-wide there were spikes in cancellations in January linked to increased emergency admissions and winter illness, and again in March when the 'Beast from the East' snowstorms prevented patients and staff in many parts of Scotland from journeying to hospitals. 

However, in NHS Borders cancellations were consistently running at double figures in December, January, February and March.

At the peak in January, more than 30 in every 200 planned operations were cancelled against the patients' or clinicians' wishes.

It comes despite an £850,000 pilot scheme which saw the former Craw Wood dementia residential unit at Tweedbank reopened and facilities at Hay Lodge Community Hospital in Peebles used as assessment units in a bid to free up acute hospital beds.

In June 2018 - the most recent month for which data is available - more than five in every 100 were still being deferred last minute, the highest rate in Scotland.

Of the 21 cancellations in June, NHS Borders said 10 were "because the beds were already filled with very sick people", and five were down to "emergencies taking priority". No explanation was given for the other six cases.

The health board has the second lowest rate of consultant vacancies in Scotland and its sickness absence is in line with the Scottish average, suggesting that factors such as bed-blocking are more likely to be at play.

In January 2017, the health board's former medical director Andrew Murray issued a plea to local residents to use the A&E at Borders General only in a genuine emergency amid "exceptional pressure on bed availability".

Dr Cliff Sharp, medical director at NHS Borders, said: "Cancelling operations is not a decision taken lightly, and we continue to work very hard to drive down cancellation rates, regardless of monthly fluctuation, in order to improve the patient experience in this area.

"We also continue to work across our Health & Social Care Partnership to provide timely and effective out of hospital care."