St Martin's surgery closes

Published on: 30 Dec 2016

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THOUSANDS of patients at a Knowle GP surgery were given just a few weeks to find a new one after a sudden announcement that it was to close.

NHS England wrote on November 25 to 5,000 patients at the St Martin’s practice in Wells Road. It told them that the owner, the Crest Family Practice based in Knowle West, is ending its NHS contract on January 4, and GP care at St Martin’s won’t be available after January 7.  

However, the letter was wrong. In fact, the practice was set to close on December 30. A helpline will be available until January 7. 

The Voice had been aware of the impending closure for some weeks but agreed not to publicise it before patients were informed.

Crest told NHS England it wanted to end its contract at St Martin’s five months ago, on July 4. In September, after discussion about whether another practice could be found to take over the surgery, Crest told NHS England that it thought the only option was for St Martin’s to close and its patients to be dispersed to other practices. 

But it took until the end of November for NHS England to reveal its decision, leaving patients a scant few weeks to find a new GP – with Christmas intervening.

The Voice has asked NHS England why it took so long to make the decision public.  

As the Voice went to press, 3,000 of the 5,000 St Martin’s patients had not registered with a new doctor. We asked what would be done about this. We also suggested that patients were due an apology.

We also asked about the  repeated delays to the closure announcement while the NHS struggled to organise a mailing to patients and arrange a meeting to explain the options open to them.

One event was held to inform patients of their options, on December 1 at The Park centre in Knowle. It attracted 15 people.

NHS England did not directly answer the Voice’s questions. Instead it issued a statement from Laila Pennington, head of primary care for NHS England in the South West, who said: “We received an application from Crest in the summer asking to close St Martin’s. We made comprehensive enquiries across other practices about possibly taking over the contract as well as taking some patients on if it were to close. It was during these discussions that we were made aware that five neighbouring practices could take on patients.

“We will be working closely with Crest Family Practice to support patients registering at other practices, with particular emphasis on identifying vulnerable people who might need special help – perhaps because they have dementia or are on continuous medication.

“We are confident there are good alternatives locally, with most patients having at least five surgeries in a two-mile radius.”

Crest practice manager Marie King told the Voice: “We share everybody’s frustration at the length of time this has taken.”

Crest is focusing, she said, on helping the most vulnerable St Martin’s patients to register with a new GP. She urged all patients who have not yet found a doctor to approach a practice as soon as possible.

Given the confusion created by NHS England over the closure date, there may be another rush of patients looking for a GP early in the New Year.

The Voice has heard several complaints from patients about long waits for appointments and other services at St Martin’s.

The practice has a one-star rating from patients on the NHS Choices website, with several complaints about appointments and too many locum staff. 

In contrast, the Priory surgery gets three stars, and Wells Road surgery four stars. Crest’s other practice in Knowle has four stars.

Ms King acknowledged there had been challenges for patients at St Martin’s but said patients waited on average a week to 10 days for an appointment.

She said Crest had begun to make a success of the practice, growing patient numbers, until the senior partner became ill and then resigned. St Martin’s was previously under threat of closure in 2014 when it made national headlines after two doctors, Holly Hardy and Karen Houghton, resigned their NHS contract, saying the workload was unbearable. It has since had two owners, neither of whom has been able to sustain it.

It is hard to recruit GPs in South Bristol. Many doctors resent NHS reforms of recent years. Those who run their own surgeries in private premises which they have to maintain – such as St Martin’s – say it is hard to make a profit.

St Martin is not attractive for any other practice to take on because the lease on the building expires in September 2017, and the owner is unwilling to renew it.

Bristol South MP Karin Smyth said: “It is deeply regrettable that, once again, St Martins’ patients find themselves facing uncertainties about what they will see as one of the most fundamental healthcare rights: access to a local, trusted GP practice,” she said.

 “There will also be concerns about capacity if patients registering elsewhere simply heaps more pressure on other local surgeries.

 “I will be discussing all these issues with local NHS managers.”

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