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Campaigners call on health secretary to stop closure of Kent stroke units

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At a Hilton Hotel in Maidstone on Valentine’s Day last year, protestors interrupted a group of GPs as they voted unanimously to stop commissioning acute stroke services in four hospital across Kent and Medway, where there are around 3,000 cases of stroke treated every year.

Under the Joint Committee of Clinical Commissioning Groups for the Review of Urgent Stroke Services in Kent and Medway’s new plans to adopt three hyper-acute stroke services, there will instead be a 34-bed unit at Darent Valley Hospital, a 38-bed unit at Maidstone Hospital and a 52-bed unit at William Harvey Hospital, along with a two-bed outflow at Eastbourne General Hospital.

This means acute services at Margate’s Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Hospital (QEQM), Medway Hospital, Tunbridge Wells Hospital, and Kent and Canterbury Hospital will stop.

The group’s decision was challenged in a judicial review at the High Court in February this year by campaigners and Medway Council, but the review was lost, and an appeal against this decision made by Medway Council was rejected last week.

Campaigners argue that this will delay treatment time for stroke patients, as those living in Thanet will need to travel to Ashford under the new plans.

Coral Jones, a GP and North Thanet Labour Party health campaigner, says the move will be ‘really bad’ for people in Thanet and north east Kent.

“There’s been a push in the last few years to centralise services, but this uses evidence from London that’s extrapolated to rural areas without taking notice of travel time,” Jones says.

The average travel time to a stroke unit in London is around 16 minutes, but Jones says it could take an hour from when a patient first notices symptoms to get them from Margate to Ashforth.

“The government is breaking its own record by doing this,” she says. “It’s saying the ‘golden hour’ doesn’t apply in Kent. When read the evidence, it’s very dishonest about traveling times. It’s saying the patient has got be there within one hour but then ignoring that.”

Research has found that stroke patients who reach the hospital within one hour of symptoms starting are twice as likely to receive a clot-busting drug twice than those who arrive later.

“People who’ve had a stroke must be seen acutely, quickly, and once they’ve had had treatment and they’re stable, they can go elsewhere for rehab if they need to,” Jones says. “People need really quick assessments.”

Jones says going ahead with the plans will cause disability and death – not just with stroke patients, but also with others who have medical conditions that mimic strokes. Research has found that up to 30 per cent of people with stroke symptoms are not having a stroke, and instead something else is mimicking symptoms.

“If the stroke unit closes, and someone ring sup QEQM or an ambulance saying they think they’re having stroke, we’re carting 100 per cent of people over to Ashford on slow roads, including transporting 30 per cent of people not having stroke, tying services up and delaying care,” Jones says.

“This 30 per cent could have diabetes and low blood sugar. They also need urgent treatment, and rapid assessment.”

Jones says she has gone through hundreds of pages of evidence from the Kent and Medway Stroke Programme.

“I’m not convinced the reasons for closing QEQM are anything other than political choice. Nowhere does it say they’re doing no harm by doing this.

“These changes aren’t considering patients’ lives at all,” Jones says.

The Kent and Medway Stroke Programme is still awaiting the decision from health secretary Matt Hancock on the referral for an independent review of the process.

Jones and local campaign group Save Our NHS in Kent (Sonik) are now focusing on pressuring Hancock to review the evidence and block the plans, and campaigning for a hyper-acute stroke unit at QEQM Hospital.

Kent and Medway CCG has been approached for comment.

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