HEALTH chiefs have defended plans for a major NHS shake-up which could see A&E and maternity units in Winchester downgraded.

Under the proposals, some specialist services could be centralised and moved away from the Royal Hampshire County Hospital to a new emergency hospital north of the city.

As previously reported, Winchester could be left with a walk-in unit for less serious A&E cases, and a midwife-led maternity unit for natural births only.

At present, about 3,000 women per year give birth at the RHCH which has the full range of obstetricians, paediatricians, anaesthetists and midwives.

But Mary Edwards, chief executive of Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Maternity is a different case because it lasts nine months and most of the care happens in local surgeries. Patients then have a choice where they want to go to give birth.”

She said the focus should be on the potential benefits that centralisation would yield for specialist consultant-led services, using the stroke service at Winchester as an example.

She said: “Patients realise that when they’re at their sickest, they want to go somewhere that has all the right equipment and people.

“The patient looks like they have had a stroke, the paramedic rings ahead and the CT scanner is all ready and waiting and there is a stroke doctor always available, 24/7.

“We can see what sort of stroke it is and your chances of a good outcome from that are really high.”

Mrs Edwards also said that paramedics would be the key to centralisation of services.

“You rely on the paramedics to make the judgement on where you go and to make sure you’re looked after.”

But moving some specialist services further afield would also mean increased travel for relatives of patients, which could be especially expensive for those in rural areas.

“It’s quite a difficult conversation to have.

“But people already go where the experts are.”

Residents’ views are currently being sought through a series of public meetings and questionnaires which end on November 30. Health chiefs will then draw up proposals for a formal public consultation.