RIVERSIDE Medical Practice in Musselburgh has hit out at “unhelpful” comments from the town’s MSP Colin Beattie about the service, saying it never has been “failing” nor received a “bailout”.

The pressure on health services due to the Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide shortage of GPs was highlighted by the practice, which recently came under renewed fire from patients who complained about being unable to get through to the surgery to make an appointment.

Mr Beattie said he was “pleased to note” that Riverside – based at Musselburgh Primary Care Centre – had accepted a package of support from East Lothian Health and Social Care Partnership (ELHSCP).

He told the Courier: “ELHSCP will assist in answering incoming calls, managing complaints and taking over the delivery of flu jabs. ELHSCP have also recruited three new GPs to support Riverside patients. A dedicated flu jab phone number will be available within the coming days for patients to book in their appointments if they have not already managed to get one.

“I have been aware of issues with Riverside for a number of years and over this time I have had countless meetings to try to address the issues at the practice. I am glad that with a lot of pushing we have now finally seen some improvements being made; however, the practice should not have let things get to this stage before they asked for help.

“While these steps should gradually deal with the immediate problem, there remains the question of the long-term sustainability of this practice and questions to be answered as to why the situation got this bad. The NHS have had to bail them out and invest additional public money in this failing service and this is not the first time.

“I will be pressing hard for a long-term solution that will meet the needs of patients. We simply cannot end up in this situation again.”

After it merged with Eskbridge Medical Practice, Riverside became the largest practice in East Lothian and one of the biggest in Scotland, with about 19,000 patients. Each week, it answers 2,500 telephone calls, provides 800 15-minute GP consultations and issues 2,000 prescriptions.

A practice spokesperson said: “Riverside Medical Practice is in the process of providing flu immunisations to 3,000 patients over the age of 65.

“Services for Riverside patients provided by the wider NHS were withdrawn at the start of the pandemic and health care providers are catching up. All of this is challenging. Riverside has discussed the pressures on the practice with ELHSCP and they are looking at ways to best support patients in Musselburgh.

“We wish to clarify that they are not taking over the delivery of flu immunisations for over-65s. They are managing the delivery of flu immunisations for under-65s at risk. This is consistent with their approach for the entire county.

“Mr Beattie is wrong to refer to this assistance, and any other assistance received, as a ‘bailout’.

“Riverside is not, and never has been, a failing service and any long-term sustainability issues are not unique to Riverside and consistent with the nationwide shortage of GPs.

“There is pressure on all healthcare services as the country deals with the pandemic and comments like this from Mr Beattie are unhelpful.

“We have invited Mr Beattie to speak with us, as it is more than a year since he has. We hope that he will take the opportunity to learn more about the services we are providing to our patients and wider healthcare issues.”

An ELHSCP spokesperson said: “ELHSCP understands Riverside has been experiencing very high volumes of calls and we are keen to offer support where we can.

“We are currently working very hard to deliver the national flu programme in partnership with all practices in East Lothian and we will in addition be helping Riverside to answer calls about flu vaccinations as soon as this work permits. We hope that this will relieve some of the pressure on their systems.”

Kenny MacAskill, East Lothian’s MP, via his website, said he met with the medical and administrative staff at Riverside last week after “a large number of complaints” from residents relating to the difficulty in getting appointments – especially the 8am booking system. He also planned to speak to ELHSCP this week.

Mr MacAskill said: “The staff and management team at Riverside were keen to say that they cared greatly about their patients and were worried about attacks on social media, that they caused fear and created an impression that staff didn’t care. They said that was far from the case.

“The root of the cause had to do with major increase in demand due to the pandemic, as well as the flu jabs. Half of flu jab appointments are dealt with by GPs. There are also capacity issues since Riverside has taken over the Eskbridge practice.

“The lack of GPs is a national issue, not simply local, and the practice has had difficulty retaining staff and taking on new GPs. The practice management were concerned that the negative press on social media was making it difficult to recruit and causing some resignations.

“After hearing the concerns of residents and meeting with the practice, I will be speaking with the health and social care partnership. There needs to be a plan for GPs in the area – it can’t simply be left to sort itself.

“The practice were very clear that they felt it was the patients who needed the support more than the practice. I agree and will continue to work with Riverside, constituents and others to try to sort out this situation.”