‘No guarantees’ over Lancashire blood test hub as pathology collaboration boss announces retirement

NHS bosses are no longer “wedded” to the idea of creating a single new facility for testing all of Lancashire and South Cumbria’s routine blood, urine and other pathology samples, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal.

The region's pathology collaboration project has been in the pipeline for more than five years, with one of its main aims being to build a hub for analysing all non-urgent tests on a purpose-built site in Samlesbury.

However, the chair of the board overseeing the plans says that alternative options for closer co-operation between the region’s hospital trusts are now being explored in case the £31m of government cash needed to fund the scheme fails to materialise.

It comes as, separately, the man who has been leading the project for the last three years announced that he would be retiring from the role - and the NHS - in January.

A single site to analyse all of Lancashire and South Cumbria's routine pathology samples might not come to pass

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Mark Hindle has worked in the health service for 45 years and took up the post of managing director of the Lancashire and South Cumbria Pathology Collaboration in October 2019.

During that time, he has been a keen proponent of the so-called “hub and spoke” model of pathology services, which would see all outpatient samples and tests ordered by GPs ferried to a centralised unit for analysis - no matter where in Lancashire and South Cumbria they originated.

Under the arrangement, individual hospitals would continue to analyse tests for inpatients and those whose results were required urgently.

Mr. Hindle told a Lancashire County Council health scrutiny committee meeting last year that he believed the overhaul would lead to a “better quality service” and generate an £8.32 return for every £1 of investment – both in efficiency and not having to spend money on the existing estate.

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Mark Hindle, the managing director of Lancashire and South Cumbria's pathology collaboration project, will retire in January after 45 years with the NHS

Speaking about his retirement, he said: “Whilst not without its challenges, working on the Pathology Collaboration has been fascinating and I would like to thank colleagues and stakeholders for their support over the last three years.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my 45 years within the NHS, during which time I’ve had a variety of roles ranging from biomedical scientist in pathology to chief executive and I am exceptionally proud to have served the people of Lancashire and South Cumbria - but it’s now time to pass the baton on to others.

“I will be continuing my commitment to public service in my current role as deputy mayor of Ribble Valley Borough Council and am looking forward to becoming mayor in 2023.”

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Mr. Hindle revealed in April that work on some aspects of the centralisation project had been put on hold in order to allow for a fresh period of consultation with staff.

The plans have previously come in for criticism from the Unite union and, in June, Mr. Hindle said that he had not intended to “cause any offence” after more than two dozen consultants from the trusts that run the Royal Preston and Blackpool Victoria hospitals said that they felt denigrated by comments he made about the challenges of staff engagement during an NHS webinar.

Kevin McGee - chair of the pathology collaboration board and chief executive of Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (LTH) - paid tribute to Mr. Hindle’s decades of “dedicated service to the NHS and the communities we serve, which will have made a tangible difference to the lives of many in our localities”.

That service included acting as the pathology incident director for the region during the pandemic, with responsibility for the provision of testing. Mr. Hindle will continue to fulfil the incident role until his retirement - but will gradually hand over the day-to-day running of the collaboration to Professor Anthony Rowbottom, LTH’s clinical director for pathology, from the autumn.

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Mr. McGee told the LDRS that engagement with staff was ongoing and that it would be “wrong not to take this period of time to reflect and just to see what the future of collaboration is going to look like”.

He said that uncertainty about the availability of funding to build a new centralised facility - previous possible sites for which have been identified in Leyland and Lancaster - meant that the collaboration was now looking at “what other options would be available for us”.

“As with the public sector everywhere, resources are more tight - so we can’t guarantee that we’re going to get the capital,” he said.

However, Mr. McGee insisted that the work done to date would still bring benefits - even if the outcome of the project ends up being different to the one that has been envisaged for so long by the organisations involved in it: the Lancashire Teaching Hospitals, Blackpool Teaching Hospitals, University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay and East Lancashire Hospitals NHS trusts.

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“There’s an awful lot of work going on looking at laboratory information systems and how we can manage them in a different way. Historically, everybody has had different systems and different protocols - and what we've been doing in the background is working together to see how they can all be…harmonised.

“That [work] won't be wasted [and] we can build on [it] - but we’re not wedded to the idea of a central hub and a new capital build.

“We have said we will re-engage with staff and…[we won’t] put a timetable around it or drive it, we’ve got to be led by the staff themselves.

“What we want is the staff to come forward with the notions, the ideas [of] what collaboration will bring, so it's going to be proper bottom-up engagement,” Mr. McGee added.

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THE CURTAIN COMES DOWN ON A LONG NHS CAREER

Mark Hindle has held a wide variety of roles during his 45 years in the health service, including CEO of the Calderstones Partnership NHS Foundation Trust - responsible for the specialist learning disability facility at Whalley - during which time the organisation moved from an “inadequate” rating by the Care Quality Commission to one of good.

He also spent 16 years - between 1988 and 2004 - at what became LTH, undertaking roles including IT project manager and ending his stint at the trust as director of operations. Mr. Hindle also led the transfer of community services away from the now defunct primary care trusts, overseeing the development of an integrated and preventative model designed to keep people out of hospital.

Lancashire Teaching Hospitals chief executive Kevin McGee recognised him for his work during what will be his final NHS job, in charge of the pathology collaboration project for Lancashire and South Cumbria.

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“On behalf of the pathology board, which has representation from all our local acute trusts, I would like to thank Mark for his work on the collaboration over the past three years, as well as his vital and ongoing work as pathology incident director.

“During this period, we have seen unprecedented changes throughout the NHS - and Mark’s energy and commitment have been vital in keeping momentum on what is a complex, but important, project which will ensure the ongoing investment in pathology services across Lancashire and South Cumbria.

“As we continue to learn to live with Covid, it’s important that we move forward positively and productively with our colleagues to shape the pathology services of the future. Mark has kept me in the loop on his retirement plans and we both agree that it is now time to hand things on to a leadership team who can commit to taking us through to the next phase of the project in the months and years ahead.

“I’d like to take this opportunity to also acknowledge Mark’s 45 years of dedicated service to the NHS and the communities we serve which will have made a tangible difference to the lives of many in our localities.”