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Health boss: Region is all set to meet demands on healthcare but patients can do their bit

Health bosses across the Black Country have admitted they face challenging times this winter to deal with rising patient numbers and an increase in illnesses but insist they can cope – and have urged people to help.

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Richard Beeken: The NHS in the Black Country is ready to meet demand

Last winter between Nov 2022 and March 2023 saw an increase of 49,000 in the number of patients seen across services managed by the Black Country Integrated Care Board including A and E, hospital in patients, ambulances and GP practices.

The board covers NHS trusts and health services across Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, an area of 1.26m residents and national statistics say the pressure on all areas of the NHS will peak in December through to February,

In a media briefing in preparation for the Christmas and New Year period, bosses said 'they are ready' for the challenges they face in terms of increased patient numbers, budget cuts, strike action from NHS workers and the extra pressure put on their services during the cold winter months.

Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, which runs Sandwell Hospital and Birmingham's City Hospital declared a critical incident earlier this month due to demand on its emergency services.

But Richard Beeken, chair of the Urgent and Emergency Care Board for the Black Country insisted they are in a 'good place' to cope with the expected increased demand in the coming weeks.

He said: "It is no secret there is a pressure on budgets – there has been talk of a £69m deficit to meet demand and government help is not endless but if we have to increase the spending to meet that demand we will. We came through the critical incident and have learned lessons from it all round and are ready for the winter."

"There has been additional investment across the care board area on facilities including work on the £40m urgent and emergency care centre at Walsall Manor Hospital.

"We have seen enhanced GP access and the increase of appointments in the evening and at the weekend with around 4,000 more primary care appointments being delivered each month than before the pandemic.

"But the way people access healthcare is changing with the pioneering of virtual wards which has freed up hospital beds and which cared for thousands of adults and children so far.

"These allow a patient to be discharged and manage their health and care at home with the full support of medical staff where they will be managed and monitored all the time.

"Dudley's pilot of the virtual children's ward was a national first and has since been rolled out to all other Black Country Trusts."

He said he was pleased the wave of industrial action days had been stood down for now and said all staff would be needed to meet the demand over the next few months.

"As well as putting pressure on staffing levels, this legitimate strike action also has an effect on morale within the NHS and I am pleased will be hopefully working to full capacity over the winter," he said.

James Parker the head of urgent care at Black Country Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said it was important to stress they were there for patients and were keen to maintain services around mental health which often gets worse in the winter

He said: "A lot of people suffer from increased problems with mental health at this time of year and our dedicated free phone number or text number is always available outside of the usual mental health service as well as GP services which normally sees the number of patients rise."

GP Ryan Hobson, who is the chairman of the Black Country Primary Care Collaborative said across the region the number of appointments had increased by 100,000 since 2019 and 74-per-cent were seen face to face.

He said: "We are trying to modernise and we have seen many of those appointments undertaken out of hours meaning in the evening or at weekends or with them being carried out by an extended healthcare team such as an extended healthcare team, but the figures are good in terms of people being seen on the same day."

Nathan Hudson from the West Midlands Ambulance Service said they were increasing staffing levels for the winter including recruiting 160 more graduate and further student paramedics,

He said: "We have put four by four ambulances into service as well to cope with the winter conditions so consider ourselves ready to deal with the inevitable increase in demand on the service that winter brings."

Mr Beeken stressed though that it was important to get the help of the public in delivering an effective service for all.

He said: "The message is before you phone 999 to think which service is the right one, whether that be seeking pharmacy advice, calling 111 if your not sure what to do or getting in touch with your GP.

"With a collaborative approach and the increased resources in staffing and investment across all healthcare areas in the Black Country, we are more than confident we can cope with the pressures winter brings."

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