Trailblazing health chiefs in north Cumbria are looking to expand video link consultations to reduce the need for patients to travel long distances.

Part of the pioneering initiative also involves improving healthcare at a hyper-local level, including developing the services available from community hospitals across the region.

The proposals are intended to cut the number of people having to travel to major health centres such as the West Cumberland Hospital and the Cumberland Infirmary, in Carlisle.

The plans were revealed at a recent meeting of the county council’s Health and Wellbeing Board in response to a question about the travel and access challenges thrown up by the sprawling county’s geography, which includes many remote and rural areas.

The comments also come just over a week after Simon Stevens, the NHS’s chief executive officer (CEO), described transport as the biggest issue for communities nationwide when he delivered a keynote speech at a Healthwatch England conference.The proposed solutions for Cumbria are not only intended to improve quick and reliable access to services but also to reduce the carbon footprint created through unnecessary travel.

Professor Stephen Eames, chief executive of the newly-formed North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust, said there would be a corresponding focus on providing services locally, in communities and even in patients’ homes.

“The more we can avoid admission and going for treatments to main centres, the better – whether this is through establishing new teams or new technologies,” he said.

West Cumberland Hospital’s maternity services already offers video link consultations from Newcastle for women with complex pregnancies.

But the Trust is now piloting digital consultations in five outpatient areas, one of which is mental health.

Prof Eames said the potential for expanding this remote technology was “really important.”

“Now I know that doesn’t work for everybody or for everything, but it does contribute to reducing the need for travel,” he added.

The meeting heard that the plans will see a greater range of services built into the West Cumberland Hospital, with smaller community hospitals also having an important part to play in the shake-up.

Professor Robin Talbot, chairman of North Cumbria Integrated Care NHS Foundation Trust, cited Maryport Day Hospital as a “case in point” for the kind of model they wanted to introduce. The hospital, which had its official opening recently, now offers what he described as a “whole series of activities” which were not happening previously.

He said: “Patients are able to have certain outpatient activities within Maryport rather than having to travel to Whitehaven or, indeed, to Carlisle.

“I think that’s an example of what we can provide and with the reconfiguration of a number of the community hospitals across north Cumbria.”

“There is that opportunity to save people from travelling. Of course, there are procedures where people have to travel to Carlisle, to Whitehaven, or indeed outside the area – and tertiary referrals where patients are required to travel longer distances, and I think people understand that.”

“But wherever we can provide things locally, then we will look at every opportunity to do so.”