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Published: 12/09/2002, Volume II2, No. 5822 Page 16

West Essex community health council is anxious that its knowledge of local health services is not lost with the abolition of CHCs.Lynne Greenwood reports Richard Nixon became the first US president to resign, Edward Heath was prime minister, Abba won the Eurovision song contest and a meeting of the newly formed West Essex community health council heard that there was a local shortfall of 100 nurses.

It was 1974, and CHCs had just been established to represent the health interests of local people.

Now, nearly 30 years on, CHCs are about to disappear.

To mark its own abolition, West Essex CHC has produced a short history of local health services since 1974, designed 'to ensure that some of our knowledge and experience is passed on'.

Fiona Whittaker, chief officer for the last eight years, wrote the report. She says: 'We decided to write it because we are very anxious that our ideas and experience should not be completely lost. It is something to say we were here.'

The report looks at GP, hospital and ambulance services, accident and emergency departments, dental services, immunisation, consultation, centralisation, staff shortages and finance.

Ms Whittaker believes the single most important healthcare issue in the region in the last 20 years was the decision to centralise inpatient services at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow, a move controversially supported by the CHC.

The scheme was initially backed by£30m from the government, but by 1988 capital costs had increased to£45-50m, and in 1990-91 the major capital programme was halted.

Although a new A&E department and a new wing were opened at the hospital, at a cost of£9m, the scheme fell far short of the original plan.

'As a CHC we were aware of what was happening, and the emerging scrutiny committees will need to keep an eye on such issues, ' says Ms Whittaker.

In 1974 there were 10 local hospitals serving west Essex, plus two convalescent homes, compared with five hospitals today. The removal of three A&E departments is still an issue of serious concern to the public, says the report.

This is hardly surprising when the results of a survey of A&E departments at three local hospitals in 1978-79 concluded: 'most local people had a quick and easy drive into hospital, were seen within half an hour of arrival and were treated within half an hour of being seen'.

Demands on the Essex Ambulance Service have increased year on year, with the growth of Stansted airport producing specific challenges.

Chief executive Gron Roberts says: 'Its quiet location made it ideal for dealing with aircraft hijacks, of which there have been three during the last ten years. It was also the scene of a fatal air crash in 1999.'

The report concludes that while 1974 was a different world, many things remain unchanged.Angela Alder, chief officer of the CHC for its first 20 years, says: 'The gap between the public's priorities and expectations of healthcare and the health service view of what they can provide is as wide today as then.' l Health Care Issues in West Essex 1974-2002 .

West Essex CHC. chiefofficer@ wechc. freeserve. co, uk. Free.