A Scottish health board has struck a deal with a hospital in Newcastle to treat heart patients amid staffing problems, it has emerged.
Patients in Grampian have already been offered the chance to travel to the north-east of England for treatment, although none have taken up the opportunity.
Opponents insisted it shows the “staffing crisis” which is engulfing the NHS in Scotland, but hospital chiefs in Grampian insist it has similar arrangements with health boards in Lothian and Glasgow.
The arrangement came to light when Tory MSP Jamie Halcro Johnston raised concerns with health Secretary Shona Robison about the wait faced by a patient in Grampian.
Ms Robison admitted in her response there was “a backlog of cardiac patients due to staffing difficulties” and that “the impact of this can result in a delay for some patients scheduled for elective admission”.
She added: “The board have indicated they have also secured a Service Level Agreement with Newcastle and this option has been offered to patients.”
It comes amid concerns over nursing and consultancy vacancies across the country, while hospitals struggle to hit waiting times targets. Mr Halcro Johnston said: “The fact a health board in the north of Scotland is now depending on hospitals in England to treat heart patients shows the depth of the staffing crisis in Scotland’s NHS.
“It’s time for the SNP to admit it’s made a mess of workforce planning and apologise to the thousands of patients who’re paying the price for these failings.
“Travelling to Newcastle for any patient in the Grampian area isn’t convenient, but even less so for those with heart problems.
“The Scottish Government should count itself lucky that the NHS in Newcastle has offered to help out in this way. The SNP has been in charge of health for more than a decade now, and only has itself to blame for this unacceptable situation.”
NHS Grampian admitted earlier this year that it could not guarantee patients treatment within the target 12 weeks of diagnosis, unless the case was urgent.
But a spokeswoman for the health board said it is committed to ensuring patients are seen as quickly as possible.
“This means, occasionally, people are offered the opportunity of surgery elsewhere during peaks in demand,” she said.
“We have well established links with Lothian and Glasgow and our agreement with Newcastle is a backup option which has not been utilised so far. People should be assured that our priority will always be to see patients in Grampian. There are also a range of factors which can result in capacity issues and not only down to staffing difficulties.
“As a result, we are working with our cardiologists, cardiac surgeons and other key clinicians on a comprehensive redesign of the service that will deliver change and build future capacity in Aberdeen.”
Ms Robison said the service in Newcastle is a “third back-up option” behind Lothian and Glasgow.
“Long waits are unacceptable which is why we have provided an additional £50 million to the NHS budget to improve waiting times at all stages of a patient’s journey through the health service – almost £5m has been provided to NHS Grampian,” she said.