Hinchingbrooke: On the road to a sustainable future

As the campaign to safeguard the future of Hinchingbrooke Hospital gathers pace, The Hunts Post is urging its readers to sign our letter of protest, while Ian MacKellar talks exclusively to the hospital s new chief executive. HINCHINGBROOKE Hospital will

As the campaign to safeguard the future of Hinchingbrooke Hospital gathers pace, The Hunts Post is urging its readers to sign our letter of protest, while Ian MacKellar talks exclusively to the hospital's new chief executive.

HINCHINGBROOKE Hospital will certainly change, and it will thrive in its new form.

But it is extremely unlikely to close, its new interim chief executive told The Hunts Post in an exclusive interview yesterday (Tuesday) on her first day in the job.

Jane Herbert, who has been involved in senior health service management for most of the past 15 years, aims to have set the debt-ridden hospital on the road to a sustainable, affordable future, with as many services as possible by the time her contract ends in March.

Until then, dealing with the debt - projected at a minimum of £23.8million by March 31, but likely to be higher, possibly £33million - can wait.

"It would be quite wrong to base long-term strategy on short-term debt," she said.

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With a catchment of 150,000 patients - though likely to grow towards 200,000 over the next five years or so - Hinchingbrooke is one of the smallest district hospitals in the country and only half the average size.

"Hinchingbrooke is one of the best in the country in achieving targets," she said. "It has done so well by being very innovative, forward-thinking and imaginative.

"For example, we share a lot of medical staff, particularly consultants, with other hospitals, such as Addenbrooke's, Peterborough and Papworth.

"The success of these network arrangements is a credit to the clinicians, managers and staff who remain committed to the future of healthcare in Huntingdon. The idea that Hinchingbrooke Hospital trust has been poorly managed is largely untrue."

Quite what services Hinchingbrooke will gain from elsewhere or lose to other hospitals following the review of all 19 district general hospitals by the East of England Strategic Health Authority is still far from clear. Ms Herbert refused to be drawn on what might happen.

But change is inevitable, as all 1,600 people who work there already know. "I would be amazed if we did not end up with a vibrant, lively hospital site here, but doing very different work - and I would be even more astonished if the hospital closed," she insisted.

But change means uncertainty, and the trust is anxious to give staff the best possible information about the future.

"I can offer some reassurance, but only in general terms. It's very important that we keep the staff. It would be very sad if we had to shut something viable because we couldn't staff it.

"It's vital that we make sure staff know what's going on as soon as we do. Patients are still going to need to be treated."

But she is in no doubt that the cashflow problems hold out the prospect of a difficult second half of the financial year. "If the deficit grows, we shall have to find ways of dealing with that."

The debt was partly the result of a strategy of attracting more patients to the £22million treatment centre, which opened a year ago and costs £250,000 a month to run. The strategy didn't work - even though the business plan had been picked over at the most senior levels of the NHS.

And even if Hinchingbrooke were allowed to keep the £19million it will lose to help prop up inefficient hospitals, the present range of activities could not be sustained in full, Ms Herbert said. The primary care trusts, which buy treatment from the hospital, could not afford to pay for all the treatment Hinchingbrooke can provide.

While not openly critical of the way the NHS is financed, she admits that there has been "some robust papering over the cracks".

One of her previous jobs was as chief executive of the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Strategic Health Authority, where she achieved financial balance and carried out a similar review of all the district hospitals on the patch.

"Some services were provided on a different basis, but we did not recommend that any hospital site should close," she said.