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Monday, July 5, 1999 Published at 18:43 GMT 19:43 UK


Conference diary: Monday

Hundreds of doctors attended the BMA conference

Other topics discussed at the British Medical Association's Annual Representative Meeting in Belfast on Monday included preparations for the millennium, the use of private money to build new hospitals and the functioning of the government's new health bodies, the National Institute for Clinical Effectiveness (NICE) and the Commission for Health Improvement (CHI).

Millennium threat to lives

The BMA believes that patients' lives will be at risk over the millennium if the government does not make extra resources available to deal with the anticipated increase in demand.

Dr Nicola Wood, a doctor in Buckinghamshire, said with the amount of partying going on over what would be an 11-day holiday, the NHS would struggle to cope with demand.

Hospitals would be under increased pressure as they are every winter, she said, and GPs' out-of-hours services would be stretched to their limits.

And she said that latest reports showed that even with the preparations currently taking place, the millennium bug was likely to lead to deaths.

"This government needs to wake up and allow the NHS to play its part in the party, she said.

Dr John Chisholm, chairman of the BMA's GPs committee, called for extra money for the millennium and for the winter crisis each year.

"We need to learn the lessons of last year's winter crisis and we need to educate patients on how to use the service responsibly and appropriately," he said.

Endorsing the motion calling for extra funds, he said: "If the government doesn't act, it will indeed put the public at risk."

NHS 'falling into private hands'

The use of the Private Finance Initiative will result in the public losing control of NHS resources, doctors have said.

Proposing a motion calling on the BMA to campaign vigourously against the system in England as it has done in Scotland, Dr Ronald Timms, a surgeon in Essex, said PFIs were attractive but flawed.

"You get a shiny new hospital, but it's NHS capital that's going out to the private sector," he said.

The process could continue "until we won't have any hospitals left in the NHS", he said.

The scheme involves private companies building a hospital and receiving payments from the NHS over a number of years.

It has proved extremely controversial, and a recent report found that it was not saving as much money as expected and may even end up costing the NHS more than if it paid for the hospital in the first place.

Dr Peter Hawker, chairman of the BMA's central consultants and specialists committee, said the scheme would lead to "private companies leaching funds out of the NHS for profit".

But Dr Gill Markham, also of the CCSC, said nothing new would get built if it were not for the PFI.

She said it was needed if the NHS was to avoid being reduced to the level of a third world health service.

Health service penny rejected

An extra penny on income tax to provide additional resources for the NHS is not the way to solve the health service's problems, doctors have said.

Jenny Vaughn, of the BMA's junior doctors committee, proposed that the association lobby for the extra 1p.

"We must continue to put the argument forward that our patients would be prepared to pay more if they knew exactly how that money was being spent," she said.

But Dr Hector Spiteri, a GP in Essex, said: "It's not our job to tell the government how to fund the NHS or how to spend taxes - paid by the people who elect it."

Warnings for indicators

Health service indicators should only be published with warnings about how they should be interpreted, doctors have said.

The Department of Health published clinical indicators including death rates for hospitals in England and Wales for the first time earlier this month.

They were criticised for giving a misleading picture of hospitals' performance and being open to misinterpretation.

Dr John Garner, a GP in Edinburgh and a member of the BMA Council, said the system worked in Scotland, where such figures have been published for the last seven years .

"We ensure that on each and every indicator there is a government health warning," he said.

This way the figures had become useful, although more so for doctors than for patients, he said.

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