ALMOST £200,000 has been spent by NHS Highland in contracting private health services to try to clear the waiting list for patients requiring cataract operations in the region.
The figures were released to Highlands and Islands Labour MSPs following a query from a constituent concerned about the amount of money spent on bringing in external consultants to clear the backlog.
MSP David Stewart first questioned the long waiting times for cataract patients in 2016 after being contacted by an 80-year-old who was told it could take 11 months before the procedure could be carried out at Raigmore Hospital.
Earlier this year, the case of 48-year-old Elaine Hanby, from Nairn, was raised at First Minister’s Questions by the then Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. Ms Hanby faced a minimum wait of 12 months for a consultation about surgery for a cataract.
In a letter to the MSPs, NHS Highland’s chief executive, Elaine Mead, said: "There are unfortunately patients waiting considerably longer than they should be for some appointment types within the ophthalmology service, including cataract assessments."
Mr Stewart has voiced his concerns.
"While I can’t fault NHS Highland for trying to clear the backlog, it is very concerning that these procedures are being outsourced to private health services and it appears that this will continue until the hospital can get more facilities such as new theatre space," he said.
"Added to almost £200,000 spent to date, there are 54 cataract procedures planned at a private hospital in Glasgow which will add considerably to the bill.
"The Scottish Government needs to invest more resources into the health service, both in terms of training and money, so that more professionals can be employed locally."
In her letter to the MSPs, Ms Mead said the ophthalmology department had been experiencing several vacancies for some time. They included consultant vacancies, one of which had now been appointed with a start date still to be confirmed. It was also recruiting to another post following the retirement of a consultant in December.
She continued: "This, combined with orthoptist and optometry vacancies across the service, which have been difficult to recruit to throughout 2017, has impacted on service delivery and we have therefore utilised external resources to deliver the cataract service for both initial assessments and cataract procedures."
To help clear the backlog, £29,205 was spent for the financial year 2016/17 while for the financial year to date £160,285 had been costed.
In addition, 54 cataract procedures had been allocated at BMI Ross Hall Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest private hospital. NHS Highland was currently identifying suitable patients to be sent there.
In February, there would be an additional four clinic rooms available to the ophthalmology service and planning was under way to deliver 60 cataract assessments per week which would not only meet demand but allow NHS Highland to reduce the backlog for cataract assessments.
She acknowledged there was only access to one ophthalmic theatre at Raigmore Hospital with limited access to a theatre in Caithness and so it was proposed to continue to deliver weekend activity via an external resource up until the end of the current financial year at least.
Ms Mead said plans were under way to produce an outline business case for a North of Scotland Regional Elective Care Centre delivering ophthalmic services and a high volume of cataract surgery was the focus with the planned centre scheduled to open in 2021.
An NHS Highland spokesman said: "We accept and understand that we have a lack of capacity currently within the ophthalmology department to undertake all the activity that we would wish due to a growing elderly population and significant staffing issues over the past year at both consultant and optometrist level.
"As a result of this, through joint discussion with Scottish Government, funding has been provided to allow us to bring external organisations to Raigmore to enable cataracts to be assessed and treated locally within Highland."