Hospital chiefs in South Tyneside and Sunderland have opened up the possibility of becoming one organisation in the future.
The move comes almost two years since the trusts came together to form the South Tyneside and Sunderland Healthcare Group.
The boards of South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust and City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust now say there is a ‘mutual desire’ to begin looking at whether the two organisations could merge.
However, there is no suggestion that South Tyneside District Hospital would close as part of any new arrangement.
Ken Bremner, who has been chief executive officer across both trusts since September 2016, said: “We have made great strides since coming together to form the South Tyneside and Sunderland Healthcare Group, with many clear benefits for our patients.
“We know, however, that there is still much more to do and this starts with exploring whether we should cement the relationship between our two trusts for the long-term.
We know that there is still much more to do and this starts with exploring whether we should cement the relationship between our two trusts for the long-termKen Bremner
“It is important that our patients, staff and stakeholders have a very clear message about what we envisage for the future, and both boards felt the timing was right to share this ambition now so that we can begin to openly discuss what a possible merger between our two organisations might mean.
“The strengths of working together across a greater geography are already abundantly clear and our aim is to make it as easy as possible for our teams to work effectively together without unnecessary organisational boundaries.
“As we look to the future and phase two of the Path to Excellence programme in 2018, I want everyone to feel confident and assured about the long-term organisational intentions of both trusts and our commitment to working together for the benefits of our patients and staff.
“This is really just the start of that conversation and we are committed to engaging with patients, staff and stakeholders as this work progresses over the year ahead.”
As it stands, South Tyneside and Sunderland operate as separate trusts, each with its own board of directors, with a single executive management team in place at the trusts since November 2016.
The trusts – which have been working closely together since March 2016 and signed a formal partnership agreement a month later – have now indicated their intentions to explore whether a possible merger would bring benefits for patients.
They are also set to begin a business planning process looking ahead to the next three to five years.
How the hospitals have worked together
South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust and City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust have been working closely together since March 2016, and signed a formal partnership agreement in April 2016.
The shared clinical expertise between the two trusts has led to a number of outcomes.
Patients in South Tyneside requiring specialist cataract surgery can now have all of their pre-operative assessments done in South Tyneside following investment in new equipment and joint working between staff. This is saving travel to Sunderland for about 400 South Tyneside patients every year.
Long-term arrangements for acute stroke care are yet to be determined. Interim changes took place in December 2016 to centralise all acute stroke admissions at Sunderland Royal Hospital, and with stroke experts now readily available seven days a week, more patients are now getting the right treatment sooner, with improvements in clinical quality indicators for both localities.
The first-ever kidney consultant at South Tyneside District Hospital was appointed thanks to the strong clinical links with City Hospital Sunderland.For the first time, patients with kidney problems living in South Tyneside are now able to attend a clinic locally, rather than travelling to Sunderland for routine appointments.
The joint working and streamlining of ‘back office’ functions to develop shared support services for staff has led to improved efficiency. The introduction of a single management team alone, for example, has generated initial savings of more than £500,000.
The trusts have shared learning and standardised policies and practice to improve patient safety and quality of care. A shared ambition to reduce avoidable pressure ulcers by 25% over the next two years has seen new mattresses introduced at South Tyneside District Hospital, as well as saving about £136,000 a year to be reinvested in patient care.
A £5million investment at South Tyneside District Hospital has been secured as part of the national ‘global digital exemplar’ (GDE) programme thanks to joint working with City Hospitals Sunderland, which is already recognised as digital leader in the NHS. The ‘fast follower’ GDE status for South Tyneside means the Healthcare Group can build on work under way in Sunderland, which has already brought £10million into the local NHS, to develop a single IT solution across both trusts to help improve data flow and patient care.
There has been more flexibility in managing pressures across the system, which was recently demonstrated by the recent surge in winter-related emergency admissions and the embedding of the new ‘point of care’ testing for flu, which has improved patient flow in both emergency departments.
Strategic planning has taken place on a bigger scale to help ensure the sustainability of services, including a large-scale recruitment exercise planned for 2018 to help improve workforce capacity. New joint committees structures are now in place across both trusts, and there is a shared vision for the future which is being embedded to develop a shared culture of high quality, safe patient care.