Plymouth diving therapy centre under funding pressure
A review of specialist NHS services could hit Plymouth’s life-saving oxygen treatment facility. Diana Prince reports on the care it offers.
A LEADING oxygen treatment centre fears NHS funding cuts could put patients' lives at risk.
Diving Diseases Research Centre (DDRC) bosses say around £600,000 of their income is under threat due to a Government review of specialist health services.
The Plymouth-based unit provides lifesaving hyperbaric oxygen therapy for more than 30 divers with decompression illness, or 'the bends', each year.
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It also treats more than 100 patients a year with carbon monoxide poisoning, flesh-eating disease, non-healing wounds such as diabetic foot ulcers, and cancer patients with radiation tissue damage.
Pete Atkey, DDRC director, said the funding for all patients other than divers with decompression illness is at risk under "vague" national funding reforms.
He said a cut could spell disaster for some patients, jobs at the centre and research.
"Patients would suffer," said Mr Atkey. "There would be more amputations if we weren't treating diabetic ulcers, for those people with necrotising fasciitis (flesh eating disease), it could result in death.
"We wouldn't be able to maintain staff skills, our costs will go up, we will have to lay people off."
The centre employs around 50 people in full and part-time roles.
Mr Atkey said government intentions on the future of services are "poorly organised".
"Sweeping changes seem to be being made on the basis of vague reports," he said. "We don't know whether any decisions are going to be made or when.
"We need to be able to plan. It's going to take us six months to react to whatever decision is made and we haven't got six months until March – when we were told all this was supposed to come in to force.
"It's a fence-sitting operation. It's such a poorly organised event that we only recently found out they are talking about whether to have another interim year to work out what they are going to do."
DDRC, founded in 1980, is based at a purpose built research and treatment facility at Tamar Science Park.
It is the largest hyperbaric centre in the South West and the only one in the country which is a registered charity carrying out research and providing HBOT for a wide range of patient conditions.
It is also a European Centre of Excellence for hyperbaric medicine treatments, research and training.
In 2011 the DDRC treated 139 patients – 31 divers with decompression illness, 67 with radiation tissue damage, 32 with non-healing wounds, two with carbon monoxide poisoning and six with other conditions. It has four chambers in Plymouth.
The bulk of funding, also from the NHS, comes from treating decompression illness.
Mr Atkey said the DDRC is working to secure the funding position with nine other hyperbaric centres across the country.
When approached by The Herald, Department of Health officials said the issue is the realm of the new NHS Commissioning Board.
The independent body was launched on October 1 as part of government reforms to the way services are funded.
A spokeswoman for the board said she could "give no answer as to the timescale" decisions would be made. She said they are "subject to Parliamentary schedules".
The spokeswoman added that an advisory report appears to recommend services continue but the board could give "no definitive answer at this stage".