HEALTH campaigners and MPs have vowed to fight ‘tooth and nail’ to keep stroke services in East Lancashire after criticism of the specialist unit at the Royal Blackburn Hospital.

It has been placed in ‘special measures’ due to concerns about the higher than expected ‘death rate’ and repeatedly missed targets.

The move comes as NHS chiefs prepare to launch a ‘review’ of stroke care across the North West, leaving the unit vulnerable to closure.

Patients’ spokesman Russ McLean, former health trust boss Ian Woolley and MPs Jack Straw, Gordon Birtwistle and Andrew Stephenson have made clear their opposition to any attempt to take the service from East Lancashire.

The department’s management has been overhauled in recent weeks after the Summary Hospital-Level Mortality Indicator suggested there were 34 ‘more deaths than expected’ in the year to July 2013.

The service has missed a key performance target every month this year - for 90 per cent of stroke patients to be admitted to a specialist ward within four hours of arrival.

This was achieved in just 47 per cent of cases between April and September this year, prompting fears that the quality of care has been compromised.

In the last 12 months the unit has dealt with 759 patients.

Mr McLean, chairman of the Pennine Lancashire Patient Voices Group, said: “I find this quite alarming that they are repeatedly missing these targets. But if they are going to try and centralise stroke care in the region I will fight tooth and nail to make sure East Lancashire keeps this service.”

Board papers at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust reveal the stroke service was in special measures in order to ‘manage the performance’ and develop a ‘remedial action plan’.

Blackburn Labour MP Mr Straw said: “What is essential is getting the best possible care for patients in East Lancashire .

“I would strongly oppose moving stroke services from East Lancashire unless it is absolutely essential. We need to concentrate on improving care at RBH.”

Pendle Tory MP Andrew Stephenson said: “I would oppose any move of stroke service from East Lancashire, where we have a high number of stroke patents, tooth and nail and will support any measures needed to improve the service.”

Mr Woolley, former health trust chairman in East Lancashire and chairman of Blackburn with Darwen’s Age UK branch, said: “I would be strongly opposed to move stroke services from Blackburn. We need to improve the service where it is so targets are not missed. It a vital service for East Lancashire.”

Burnley Lib Dem MP Gordon Birtwistle said: “I would oppose and attempts to move stroke services from Blackburn, unless they want to bring it back to Burnley General where there used to be an excellent specialist unit.

“I would absolutely fight any move from East Lancashire tooth and nail.”

Dr Ian Stanley, deputy medical director at ELHT, said there had been changes in the clinical and managerial leadership which should bring a ‘more rigorous approach’ in bringing change.

Transferring patients to a specialist ward was seen as a key aspect of good quality stroke care and Dr Stanley added: “Because we want stroke patients to be admitted to the correct specialist ward there are occasions when there might be general medical beds immediately available, but not a bed on the specialist stroke ward.

“Rather than subject the patient to two bed moves the patient is kept in the emergency department until the appropriate stroke bed becomes available.”

The Greater Manchester, Lancashire and South Cumbria Strategic Clinical Network is set to carry out a review of stroke services across Lancashire and South Cumbria.

In several areas of England stroke services have been centralised at fewer hospitals, including in London, which has produced better outcomes due to increased consultant presence on the wards.

In Lancashire treatment is also currently available in Blackpool and Preston.

The Lancashire Telegraph asked ELHT if it will aim to retain its stroke service, but Dr Stanley declined to comment, saying it was a question for commissioners.