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Changing Times | 70 years of the NHS at St Richard’s Hospital

Chichester has had a long history of caring for the sick and elderly dating back to the 12th century, when the leper Hospital of St James and Mary Magdalene was founded at Westhampnett at the end of (Ho)Spital Fields Lane.


Other hospitals, which were all supported by voluntary contributions, such as St Mary’s and Bartholomew’s, were established in the city over time. By the 1930s, medical care in the district was managed by West Sussex County Council in a variety of medical institutions catering for different patient needs. These included Graylingwell Mental Hospital, Zachary Merton Maternity Home and the Royal West Sussex Hospital, which provided acute medical and surgical care.


In 1937, the county council decided to build St Richard’s Hospital as a long-stay hospital for the ‘elderly and infirm’. The hospital had only just opened when the Second World War broke out and the Government declared it an Emergency Medical Service General Hospital. Ten new wards in huts were added, taking the capacity to 594 beds, as well as the addition of an operating theatre in order to cope with the influx of war casualties.


After the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS) 70 years ago on July 5, 1948, St Richard’s was administered by the Chichester Hospital Management Committee. The NHS was set up in order to provide healthcare for all, no matter your background or material wealth. For the first time hospitals, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, opticians and dentists were brought together under one umbrella to provide services for free at the point of delivery.


After the launch of the NHS, St Richard’s began to develop a much wider range of services, reflecting the determination of its staff to keep at the forefront of ongoing medical advances. Casualty, X-ray, pathology, obstetrics, physiotherapy, paediatrics and coronary care were all accommodated within the existing buildings. As funds allowed, new buildings were constructed to house a post graduate medical centre, accident and emergency as well as outpatient and maternity departments in the late 1960s. Following this came the neurological rehabilitation unit (Donald Wilson House) and new intensive care and coronary units in 1975-77.


In the mid-1970s, St Richard’s entered a more difficult period as it was, like all areas of the NHS, subject to a series of reforms, reorganisations and cost controls directed by successive governments.


These were brought about by the need to manage the NHS budget at a time when medical knowledge and technology had expanded greatly, and more and more people were expecting increased services. Although capital spending was halted, the range of services offered by the hospital continued to grow.


St Richard’s had a good reputation, especially through its postgraduate education facilities, and attracted consultants in developing fields such as gerontology (the study of ageing) and rehabilitation to the hospital. By 1994, there were 26 specialities available.


Despite the difficulties, St Richard’s achieved NHS Trust status in 1994, when it became West Sussex NHS Trust, and it entered another period of rapid expansion. A new larger building containing wards, physiotherapy and operating theatres, was opened in 1996 and then in 2008 Donald Wilson House was replaced with a new environmentally friendly building. Construction also began on a new cancer day care centre (the Fernhurst Centre).


St Richard’s survived the threat of possible downsizing or closure as part of the NHS Strategic Authority’s ‘Fit for the Future’ proposal which ended in 2009, amid widespread public opposition to the proposals and strong support for the hospital.


Shortly after this, it joined with Worthing and Southlands (Shoreham-by-Sea) hospitals to become Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Trust, and subsequently, in July, 2013, it became an NHS Foundation Trust.


Foundation trusts are controlled and run locally with the involvement of local people, patients and staff members who can help decide how best to spend the trust’s income, taking into account the needs of the local community.


Over the years, St Richard’s has been recognised many times for its high standards and the quality of treatment and care it provides. Most recently, in 2016, it was rated ‘Outstanding’ by the Care Quality Commission, one of only seven acute trusts in the country to receive the health watchdog’s highest rating.


Expansion of services has not slowed, with recent improvements including a new children’s ward in 2011 and the Chichester Treatment Centre for day care patients in 2013.


The hospital now has a staff of around 2,500 and approximately 430 beds.


To celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS, The Novium Museum and West Sussex Records Office are hosting special displays. The Novium Museum display focuses on locum surgeon Betty Underhill, who worked at St Richard’s Hospital in the late 1970s and features some of her medical equipment. West Sussex Record Office is currently hosting a display which will run until August 10, which features a selection of original documents, exhibition panels about the history of the NHS, and many copies of photographs from the archives.


By Denise Meeson, Volunteer at The Novium Museum

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