DOCTORS in Helensburgh have spoken out over the closure of the out-of-hours GP service at the Vale of Leven Hospital – and its impact on vulnerable patients.

The Advertiser contacted the Millig Practice at Helensburgh Medical Centre to seek local GPs’ views after learning that the out-of-hours service at the Alexandria Hospital was closed between 3pm and midnight on Saturday due to a shortage of trained staff.

It’s the fourth time in the last six weekends that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has been unable to provide the vital service – forcing people in Helensburgh and Lomond to travel to the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley and the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow to be seen by a GP.

And as well as voicing concerns at the impact of the closure on disadvantaged patients, such as those without a car, GPs in the Helensburgh and Lochside area now say they fear the service’s recent staffing problems could represent part of a strategic plan to cut local out-of-hours care – or to close the service altogether.

In a statement, they said: “Closure of the Vale service constitutes an unacceptable clinical risk which will be felt most by disadvantaged patients, thereby widening health inequality.

“We will liaise with NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, and with our heath and social care partnership, to seek reassurances that the health board will take the necessary steps to ensure that sufficient GPs are employed to provide this service at the Vale of Leven.

“We are concerned that the inability to fill the posts represents part of the health board’s strategic plan to reduce or close local GP out-of-hours care. There has been no attempt to recruit unfilled nursing posts in the GP out-of-hours service.

“The concept of such a large population base having to travel 25 miles to the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley to access GP out-of-hours services, we find, constitutes an unacceptable clinical risk.”

Helensburgh’s MSP Jackie Baillie said the health board’s failure to recruit staff for the service “lifted the lid” on plans to reduce the facilities provided at the Vale.

Ms Baillie said: “It is absolutely outrageous that local people have been left in the dark about the future provision of out-of-hours services at the Vale of Leven Hospital.

“The confirmation from local GPs that NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has not even bothered to recruit out-of-hours staff lifts the lid on the health board’s strategy to cut back local services at the Vale of Leven Hospital.

“I raised the issue in the Scottish Parliament last week and asked the SNP Health Secretary to guarantee that opening hours will not be cut at the Vale.

“She brushed aside the concerns, calling it a ‘temporary measure’, only for the service to be closed again two days later.

“The SNP must step in now to provide our community and GPs with reassurance about local services.

“Out-of-hours GP care is not a specialist service. It is the most basic service which any local hospital should provide.”

Health secretary Shona Robison said: “We have sought and received assurances from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that the continued provision of out-of-hours primary care services across the Clyde area, including at the Vale, is a key priority for the health board.

“We want a high-quality out-of-hours service which fully meets patient needs.

“That is why we are investing £10 million into delivering the report’s recommendations to create a multi-disciplinary team approach, utilising the skills of highly-trained professionals in the NHS and ensuring that patients are seen by the person best able to address their needs.”

A spokeswoman for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said: “The out-of-hours service is facing significant challenges in staffing the existing eight centres and home visiting service for Greater Glasgow and Clyde patients. There have been occasions when no GP has been available to cover a specific centre.”

They said the GP out-of-hours team has developed “initial thoughts on options to address these pressures. A full range of options will be developed and considered in a full review of the service the six Health and Social Care Partnership chief officers covering our area are commissioning to explore how the service might be made more sustainable”