THE two trusts which run Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole hospitals have formally merged as part of the transformation in the way healthcare is delivered in Dorset.
Costing about £147m, the move has been nine years in the making and survived plenty of missteps along the way, including government rejection, protests, critical Care Quality Commission inspections and the departure of a chief executive.
While both hospitals will retain their own names, the trust will become University Hospitals Dorset NHS Foundation Trust (UHD) and link with Bournemouth University. Chiefs said the move “reinforces” their commitment to expanding research, education and training and “fostering innovation”.
Debbie Fleming, chief executive, said: “University Hospital Dorset NHS Foundation Trust will be a stronger, more resilient organisation, which means we will be able to deliver much improved services for our patients.
“The new trust will be a great place to work, and we expect to see talented individuals from across the country choosing to join us, and be part of the exciting transformation plans in Dorset.
“Today marks a watershed moment for acute hospital care in this area,” she added.
The merger has been driven by the Dorset Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), which organises and plans healthcare for Dorset and whose members comprise senior retired and currently practising medics and the 81 GPs across the county.
The move ratifies an overhaul of the way care is delivered in Dorset which will see the Royal Bournemouth Hospital (RBH) become the main emergency care centre and the host of updated maternity and paediatric services for the county.
Meanwhile, Poole will become the hub of planned care for patients who need treatment and non-emergency operations.
The changes will see the buildings at both revamped – planning applications have been submitted to extend both, with RBH mooting a six-storey upgrade.
To mark the merger, a virtual celebration event was held for staff and public, hosted by Mrs Fleming and trust chairman David Moss, which included contributions from national and regional NHS chiefs and messages of support from health and social care partners.
There were also good wishes from former colleagues and supporters and famous faces – including actor Guy Henry, patron of the Poole Hospital Cancer Treatment Trust, and local resident and former football manager Harry Redknapp.
UHD will employ more than 9,000 staff and has an annual turnover of more than £630m. It has promised the move will ensure both hospital sites and the university “benefit from significant future investment” which it said will satisfy “the trust’s ambitious capital programme”.
While the CCG has been enthusiastic about the merger, which it first announced back in 2011, many others took time to come around.
After proposing the move in 2013 – the first ever merger of two UK hospital trusts – the idea was refused by the Competition and Markets Authority, which ruled it “would be expected to result in a substantial lessening of competition in the provision of a large number of services”.
There was more bad news for RBH when its practices were brought into focus in a 2013 review conducted by Sir Bruce Keogh, and a damning inspection by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) slammed the facility as “dangerous, unsafe and inadequate”.
More unhappiness followed in 2014 when it emerged the trust was threatening “bed blockers” with legal action, causing criticism of the then-RBH trust chief executive Tony Spotswood.
But Mr Spotswood pledged improvements and delivered. In 2015 the trust’s CQC rating went up to ‘requires improvement’ and by 2018 the watchdog declared that “significant improvements” had earned it an upgrade to an overall ‘good’ rating and praised bosses for their work.
By that time the CCG was again pursuing the merger and overhaul of care – but that sparked a new battle as Poole’s suggested downgrade to an urgent treatment centre and the loss of its A&E department sparked uproar among residents on the western side of Dorset.
They argued they were losing out, but senior medics claimed the move was needed and trust staff said increased specialisation would improve care.
Opponents held various protests and took their fight to the High Court in 2017 and 2018. But judges rejected their claim and ruled in favour of the CCG’s desire for the merger, which was ultimately supported in a public consultation.
Mr Spotswood announced he was leaving the RBH trust in December 2018, having decided not to apply to become chief executive of the merged organisation – which was finally granted approval in April this year by the Competition and Markets Authority.
This time it ruled competition between NHS hospitals “now plays little role in the provision of NHS services in the east Dorset area” and collaboration was viewed as a “better way” to meet increasing care demands.
There was a final snag: the merger had been due to happen on 1st July but chiefs were forced to delay because of the coronavirus pandemic. They said pursuing the merger at that time was “very wrong” as clinicians would have been drawn away from frontline work.
Professor John Vinney, vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University, was pleased the merger could finally take place, stating: “We have a long history of close working with both trusts, and have been doing so very effectively for many years.
“This joint work has included training staff, jointly publishing research and working together to enrich society and focus on societal benefit.
“Both organisations have a huge amount in common in terms of our ambitions and our vision, and we really look forward to working even more closely as part of a new partnership with University Hospitals Dorset.”
To support the merger the hospitals have issued new phone numbers to all staff, which will show as calls from 0300 019 numbers, and new email addresses ending in @uhd.nhd.uk but old and new email and phone numbers will run side by side for the next few months.