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Friday, 8 June, 2001, 09:59 GMT 10:59 UK

Health worry fuels doctor's win

It is easy to for an observer to see why Dr Richard Taylor was the only independent returned to Westminster in this election.

He placed himself at the heart of a fierce-fought local row, battling to prevent the down-grading of Kidderminster Hospital in the Wyre Valley constituency.

The issue of hospital or casualty closure is a powerful way of engaging the voters, and the Health Concern campaigners have already scored significant success at a previous set of council elections.

They won more than 40% of the vote, gaining seven council seats and knocking Labour out of overall control.

But this is not a simple case of doctors fighting the faceless bureaucrats who are looking for a cost-cutting solution.

Many doctors actually favour the very changes to which the new MP is opposed - in fact, their have even been claims that the campaign to save Kidderminster Hospital is putting lives at risk.

The plan to down-grade hospital services in the town is part of a wider countywide re-organisation.

This centres around a new hospital being built in Worcester under the private finance initiative.

This has a fully-fledged accident and emergency unit, and the intensive care beds needed to back it up.

No inpatients

However, Kidderminster, previously a medium-sized district general hospital, would in future no longer have patients staying overnight in "acute" beds.

It would be reduced to a "walk-in" centre for outpatients.

Anything more serious would have to go to Worcester or elsewhere.

Kidderminster and neighbouring towns have a combined population of approaching 100,000 - a large number not to have its own A&E unit.

There are naturally fears that having to drive for half an hour to reach the nearest casualty does not represent an improved service - and may be placing some patients at risk.

" Treating each district general hospital as an island ... is anachronistic, backward-looking and is a recipe for falling standards "
Letter from doctors to the Birmingham Post about the Health Concern campaign

Many other towns elsewhere in the country of equivalent size have one.

Worcester is some 15 miles away, and Redditch, the next nearest hospital, 16.

There were accusations that the only reason that Kidderminster faced the axe was to make up an overspend on the privately-financed Worcester hospital.

But is the retired consultant right?

His defeated opponent, barrister David Lock, was resolute in saying that the majority of medical opinion supported the move.

Many local GPs were in favour of the change, as were a number of leading doctors from various Royal Colleges.

In a letter to the Birmingham Post, a group of well known "names" from the profession, accused Health Concern of "not seeing the bigger picture".

"This flies in the face of much national work," they wrote.

"Treating each district general hospital as an island, somehow independent from the rest of the NHS is anachronistic, backward-looking and is a recipe for falling standards."

Dr Taylor condemned the letter's authors as Labour Party "stooges".

Fresh debate

It is unclear whether Dr Taylor's election will be much more than symbolic of the strength of local opinion.

If the bulk of local medical opinion remains in favour of the shake-up, the likelihood is that its main elements will continue.

The political successes of the campaign in previous elections have yet to have any significant impact on the planned down-grading of the hospital.

And as a lone independent who has defeated a former Labour minister, Dr Taylor is unlikely to wield much clout at Westminster.

However, health authority bosses will now be in little doubt about the will of the people - they must now decide whether they can afford to carry on overriding it.

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