The NHS in Scotland is better prepared than it ever has been to cope during the winter months, its chief executive says.
Publishing his annual report, John Connaghan - interim head of NHS Scotland - admitted that the service had faced “exceptional” challenges last winter due to factors such as large number of patients being struck with flu and the winter vomiting bug.
But he said that this year boards were much better prepared for any challenges they could face due to rising demand.
The report outlined the progress made by the NHS in Scotland during 2012/13, including falls in waiting times and the level of hospital infections.
But it also revealed several key targets being missed, such as improving treatment for stroke patients, reducing suicide rates and ending bed blocking in Scottish hospitals.
Mr Connaghan said last winter was unusual with factors such as the early start of the norovirus season impacting on services. This led to situations such as on Christmas Eve, 25 wards being closed to new admissions to try to stop the spread of bugs.
“That is exceptional. That was highly unusual last year,” he told The Scotsman.
“This year we started planning in March. We issued an action plan on emergency care and that led to use giving boards extra funding to implement those plans.
“So this winter I think we are much better prepared. We hope we don’t have unusual circumstances but we have tried to plan for that.”
He said there was nothing so far which raised concern about unusually high levels of norovirus.
Asked why key targets for improving services were still being missed, Mr Connaghan said the NHS always set “really stretching” targets which may explain why some had proved difficult to achieve so far.
“If we set everything and achieved it at 100 per cent, people might say we are setting them far to easy,” he said.
“So we do try to set stretching targets.”
Mr Connaghan pointed out that many of the targets had been missed only marginally,
On the stroke target - to make sure 90 per cent of patients are admitted to a specialist unit within a day - he said performance had improved and 80 per cent of patients now met the target. He said improvements were also demonstrated in large drops in stroke deaths.
Mr Connaghan said targets that had been missed were not forgotten, with work continuing to achieve them,
Next week will see the publication of the latest A&E waiting time statistics to show how much boards are cutting the number of patients waiting over four hours to be seen.
“It has been another year of decent progress. That does not mean to say that the NHS does not have challenges, but we address those challenges with some good plans for the future,” Mr Connaghan said.
He also said that the NHS was now very good at monitoring standards in quality of care and issues such as mortality rates.
Earlier this year it emerged that NHS Lanarkshire was being investigated over higher than average mortality rates in its hospitals. A report is due next month,
“If there’s a blip in a particular statistic connected with hospital mortality, then we will look at it,” Mr Connaghan said.
“It may be that [in Lanarkshire] we have nothing to concern ourselves about, but if there is and we need to take some action to further improve the quality of care in those hospitals then we would do that.”