THE SECOND of three new operating theatres at Neath Port Talbot Hospital is due to open early in September, despite challenges recruiting anaesthetists.
The long-awaited “modular” theatres were opened in June by Eluned Morgan, Minister for Health and Social Services, but operations have only been carried out at one of them. Swansea Bay University Health Board said the third one was expected to open in late October.
The health board was responding to a claim by a member of the public that the theatres, whose focus is on planned orthopaedic procedures such as hip and knee replacements and some spinal surgery, weren’t functioning at present.
In response to the claim the health board said a phased opening approach, due to recruitment and training of new staff, had always been intended.
“In June, we moved staff from another theatre in the hospital into the new facility to make use of the high-spec equipment and larger space,” it said. “The second theatre will open in early September, with the third expected to open in late October.”
Some new staff have been recruited from aboard. The health board said: “We are awaiting national tests for our overseas nursing staff which has taken longer to process than first anticipated, but all additional theatre staff have been recruited and will receive training to become fully functioning members of the theatre team.
“Additional surgeons have also been recruited with some in post already, while the remainder are undergoing training. Our most challenging staffing group to recruit has been anaesthetists, due to a national shortage. We have successfully employed several high-calibre individuals but our recruitment campaign remains open.”
Up to 2,000 operations could take place per year at the three wards, and the health board said there were plans to re-open another theatre in the hospital in January which would increase the figure to 3,000 per year.
The idea behind the theatres is to increase surgical capacity, transfer most planned – or elective – cases from Morriston Hospital by creating a new dedicated site, and reduce lengthy waiting lists.
Health board leaders discussed the modular theatre proposal for Neath Port Talbot Hospital in August 2021. Originally four new theatres were planned, and the hope at that time was that they’d open in the summer or autumn of 2022. The health board envisaged 177 staff working in them, including 13 surgeons and 11 anaesthetists, and early recruitment was recommended.
Then four wards became three, and the estimated opening date was put back. The health board was allocated just under £6 million by the Welsh Government to pay for and equip the theatres – it’ll cost much more to staff them.
Asked about the wider shortage of anaesthetists, the Welsh Government said their number had grown in Wales from 369 to 441 over the last 10 years.
A Welsh Government spokeswoman said there was a global shortage of all healthcare workers. She said: “We have increased our training budget for the ninth year in a row to £281 million this year, creating an extra 527 (healthcare) training places and we are continuing to identify further steps to support our people and address challenges around recruitment and retention.”
The British Medical Association said it had reports of ongoing issues with anaesthetic training and the process to get into training in Wales, and that some anaesthetists were leaving to work in Australia.