HINCHINGBROOKE has become the top-performing hospital with an accident and emergency department in the Midlands and East of England, according to the company that took over its management six months ago to the day.

The Huntingdon hospital now ranks fifth among the 46 NHS acute trusts in the region, but the top four do not have A&E departments.

Circle Health, which took over the running of Hinchingbrooke on February 1 on a 10-year franchise, has just combined its A&E with the acute assessment unit to prevent emergency patients queuing twice, and has aligned the new emergency department with improved short-stay arrangements to keep admission times to a minimum.

One of the key achievements announced by Circle today (Wednesday) has been to improve management of serious incidents from 'poor' on the primary care trust's index in February and March to 'excellent' for the past three months.

This is one of the 16 staff-generated points of improvement the company announced in February in its bid to become one of the best 10 NHS district general hospitals in the country.

Nurses now spend 62 per cent of their working time with patients, compared with 51 per cent previously, and all handovers between nursing shifts now happen at the bedside, a spokesman said.

Circle says it has fixed Hinchingbrooke's colorectal service - following an investigation by the Royal College of Surgeons into death the Cambridgeshire Coroner said might have been preventable - and appointed a new colorectal consultant in April.

In February, Michelin star chef Andreas Wingert worked with local hospital chefs to redesign the menus. They asked patients for their feedback on the new menus and adjusted the food based on this.

As a result, patient satisfaction with food went from 59 per cent in March, 88 per cent in April, 94 per cent in May, 90 per cent in June and 94 per cent in July. Locally-sourced fruit and veg has increased from 20 per cent in January to 95 per cent in July, said a spokesman.

The new management has effectively capped car parking charges at £2.50 and removed a punitive regime of fines for overstaying or failing to buy a ticket.

One change that has gone down really well with staff at the hospital is putting medical staff at the heart of managing patient services. There are now 17 clinicians on the hospital board.

Circle chief executive Ali Parsa told The Hunts Post: "Through Circle's entrepreneurial drive, operating model of transferring power to the staff closest to patients, and methodology of deploying leading experts from our partnership to coach staff on this journey, we have already seen big improvements across the hospital.

"You can never mark running a marathon after a few miles, and we know that there are many areas we still need to work on, but it's clear that our partners have made big strides towards their goal of becoming one of the best district general hospitals in the country."