/ Health, Motoring

How St Helier Hospital cured its car parking problem

St Helier Hospital

A year on from our investigation into NHS hospital car parks, St Helier Hospital has joined us to track its journey from being a poor performer to becoming our ‘most improved hospital’.

Visiting hospital is stressful enough without having to worry about parking. That’s why Which? is campaigning for better hospital car parks – charges should be fair and flexible, penalties proportionate and there should be support for priority patients.

Nick Gorvett, director of corporate infrastructure at Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust, answers our questions to reveal how St Helier Hospital cured its car parking system.

1. What was your initial response to our findings and how did they encourage you to make changes?

We were of course disappointed to find out we had come out poorly in last year’s Which? survey of NHS hospital car parks for the number of cars we clamped.

As a Trust that treats around 700,000 patients a year, it has always been vital that our car parks are managed well and efficiently.

Which? encouraged us to think about all the aspects of car parking in a different light: we wanted to have some of the best NHS hospital car parks in the country, and we wanted to involve our patients, visitors, staff, volunteers and local people to help us improve them.

2. The Trust has made a lot of improvements to its hospital’s car parks over the last year, tell us more about the steps you took to turn things around.

The first thing I did was to sit down with a number of colleagues and discuss how we could make improvements. One of the first things we did was to meet with the team from Which? to discuss the findings in more detail.

We decided to launch a comprehensive review of car parking known as ‘The Big Conversation’, to find out how our car parks could be improved, while still keeping them safe, accessible and fair for the hundreds of thousands of people that use them each year.

1,100 patients, visitors, staff, volunteers and local people took part in the review, which asked a variety of questions. These included whether our charges and associated penalties are fair, whether there is priority parking for those that need it, and whether we should stop clamping vehicles for parking infringements.

3. How did your patient and staff consultation, the ‘Big Conversation’, help you improve your car parks?

As a Trust, we are committed to involve our patients and staff, as well as visitors and volunteers, as much as we can in decisions we make about our hospitals.

We promoted The Big Conversation as much as we could, both to the people that use our hospitals, but also in local newspapers and radio – we wanted to get as many views as possible.

After analysing the results of the review, the Trust Board has agreed a number of significant changes that will take place over the coming year.

The changes include: stopping clamping and making sure patients and visitors are refunded for their parking if their appointment is delayed by more than an hour.

We also agreed that parking charges for patients, visitors and staff will not increase over the next two financial years and we won’t be charging on Bank Holidays. In addition, patients and visitors will be able to park without any charge for the first 20 minutes of their stay.

We are also creating more disabled parking spaces and allocating more free short-stay ‘drop off’ spaces to make parking as convenient as possible. Other changes include:

  • Improving the signs around the hospital to let people know about concessions available and that the first 20 minutes are free.
  • All payment machines will be changed to accept credit and debit cards (as well as cash).
  • Introducing a new ‘barrier’ system at Sutton Hospital (which is currently ‘pay and display’) will mean patients and visitors no longer have to guess how long they’ll need a space for.
  • Redesigning the angles of some car park spaces to make them easier to use.
  • Introducing discounts for people who drive electric, biofuel or dual fuel cars to help support our commitment to environmentally-friendly travel.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t scrap charges altogether and we’re unable to increase the number of parking spaces at our hospitals. But we do hope that our patients, visitors and staff will agree that the changes we’re making are substantial and prove that we’ve listened to their feedback.

4. What are the wider benefits of a better car park on the hospital at large? Are there any other improvements planned for your car parks in the next year?

People who come into hospital, whether as patients or visitors, are often understandably anxious, concerned or vulnerable. We are committed to doing whatever we can to make the experience they have in our hospitals better – and that includes making car parking as easy and stress-free as possible.

As you can see, we’ve made a huge raft of improvements as a result of the Which? survey, but we’ll continue to listen to feedback from our patients, visitors, staff and volunteers, to make sure we’re running some of the best NHS car parks in the country.

Have you ever felt frustrated by your hospital’s car park? Do you think St Helier Hospital has done enough to make parking fair and stress free and would you like your local NHS hospital to take the same prescription?

Richard Greenberg says:
31 May 2011

I think all the debate highlights the difficulties that the hospitals face in trying to provide parking for all of the many different groups that use the hospital. Different groups have correspondingly different needs and it is difficult to design a system that can be of helpful to as many people as possible without making a system that is impossible to understand for patients. I think that in view of this, the aspect that I was most happy with, was the fact that St Helier undertook a wide ranging consultation with many people to try to understand the different needs of the various groups that use the hospital. It shows that there isn’t a one size fits all approach and local hospitals need to react to local needs.

John Grant says:
31 May 2011

We have been fortunate in that, having reached our eighties or thereabouts, so far we have not needed to use our local hospital (The County Hospital in Dorchester, Dorset). However, recent health problems have resulted in a number of visits being required, and we have found the hospital car park almost always crammed full, with charges being made, presumably to deter local workers from using it as a cheap alternative to othet town car parks.

We feel strongly that those with health problems should not be penalised financially, whether as patients or family visitors, and while we acknowledge that the hopspital needs to maximise its income from parking charges, in fairness, a “token” scheme would be better, with bona fide hospital users (patients and visitors) being issued with tokens (perhaps with a small charge) to enter the car park. This would still prevent unauthorised users from filling the spaces, but would be seen as a better way to run affairs.

Hi Peter, William, the reason we only included English hospitals with an A&E in the research is because Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish hospitals all operate different policies and it would have been hard to compare like for like. As you know, car parking charges were abolished in 2008 in Scotland (except in hospitals built using PFI contracts) and Wales (except in hospitals with existing external contracts). Northern Irish trusts have control over their car parking charges, but mandatory concessions are in place for certain groups of patients e.g. cancer patients. These issues would have made it very difficult to make a fair comparison between hospitals.

While our FOI requests focussed on English hospitals, we did ask consumers across the UK for their views on hospital car parks – so our understanding of the issues that really bug people about hospital car parking is informed by hospital users across the UK.

It’s really good to hear about Graham and Linda’s experiences of St Helier, its pretty hard for hospitals to get it right 100 per cent of the time. While St Helier has made a lot of improvements to its car park over the year Which? wants to see hospitals using our three demands as a benchmark for continual improvement. Hopefully your experiences will inform future changes that St Helier and the wider Trust make to car parks – to make sure they do email Trust CEO, Matthew Hopkins, using our tool at: http://www.which.co.uk/parking.

David, I completely agree that we should all be less reliant on cars and look into alternative ways of getting to a hospital. I’m lucky enough to live in central London, so can easily attend visits on my bike or by bus, but as some other readers point out, for the seriously ill, driving is often the only option. This research did not look into how people get to hospital and it is not intended to encourgage driving to hospitals – its focus was an assessment of parking facitilites at hospitals against the criteria people told us were improtant to them, I’m afraid assessing transport options and facilties was out of the scope of the project this time.

Ann Burgess says:
8 June 2011

So are you telling me that people who were in a family crisis and forced to travel long distances to get to specialist hospitals (as was the case with us) really were demanding that the hospitals reward those with electric cars?

I simply don’t believe it!!!

People NOT in that situation might think that way, but believe me, when you are facing the possible death of a loved one over and over again you are DEFINITELY not in the market for a new and expensive car. You just want to get there and spend as much time as you can with the sick relative. I feel insulted that St. Helier Hospital would be so insensitive as to send out that kind of message! “Because you only have an ordinary car, you deserve to pay around £6 per day to be with the person you love who is sick. It serves you right for not shelling out on an electric one before!”

I don’t think so.

Rick Smith says:
11 June 2011

If St Helier’s parking is improved, I dread to think how it must have been beforehand. In recent experiences at the hospital I found: Very few disabled bays. Disabled bays at front entrance set out so that exiting cars block cars entering, causing bottlenecks. It is almost impossible to park, get to any department, return and exit within the 20 minute free period. There are no seats for frail passengers to sit near Drop Off points while driver parks the car. Queues build at entrance barrier to car park, sometimes extending into the main road outside. It appears entrance barriers only lift when a car exits, but having entered, there are lots of empty bays available. Queuing to enter can take 10 minutes. This makes leaving frail passenger at a drop-off point untenable. Entrance barriers and pay machines were sometimes not working. Did not see any notices about parking refunds for late appointments. (Suspect obtaining a refund would entail a further long walk around the hospital.)

Valerie says:
2 September 2011

St Helier may have improved it`s car parking, however there are still too few disabled parking bays.

Kent and Canterbury has very poor signs, and you are expected to read their notice boards at the enterance of the car parks, which is far too far for disabled people or the elderly to walk. Signing is bad, often written on the road , which is wearing thin. If other cars are parked over the road markings you cannot see what the markings are. The disabled spaces are free, but there are not enough of them, and you cannot park in a bay for free unless it is designated a disabled bay. You have to buy a two hour ticket as a minimum, the rates are high and always going up. Nobody ever wins any appeal, and they make comments about their ballif company they use if you do not pay after appealing, which I feel is trying to intimidate. I am refusing to pay the fine they gave me, because it was so badly signposted, will keep you posted on what happens. It is disgraceful, especially for the elderly. My mother had a dreadful time using it, and ended up with a fine as she did not buy a ticket quick enough. Dad had dementia, and she was busy worrying about him wandering off at the time. Try and avoid if possible. The parking is every bit as badly run as the care on the wards. Not a thought for the elderly at all, but then what is new in this country!

The trouble is that no one in authority takes responsibility for what they do. It is possible, as has been suggested by a tv programme whose name I forget, that some of the people who run parking management schemes have criminal records. It is good that such people can get jobs, but they should not be in positions where they have power over other people, particularly the sick and elderly.

Unfortunately it is not possible to avoid hospital car parks if you are sick, and those that run them know this. These car parks provide idea fodder of vulnerable people that can be bullied with impunity by those that delight in this sort of behaviour.

The ultimate blame must be with those in government who planned hospitals with inadequate parking space.

The idea is to force people to use public transport on the grounds of it being more environmentally friendly. This is a fallacy because although the “miles per gallon” per passenger may be less, the figure is based on a full bus, whereas busses are seldom full. The number of miles travelled to get between two points is very much more using public transport.

In addition, using public transport is much more stressful and people with infectious diseases can spread them or add to their portfolio of illnesses. This stress and infection leads to more work for the already overstretched NHS, and in the end costs more money. Several changes during a journey on public transport can also result in patients missing appointments, causing more chaos in hospitals.

John, here here for your views. The fact is, however much some lazy idiots with inappropriate powers, nothing better to do and exploitationist tendencies can make it somehow legitimate for hospitals to pay fees for people to park in the hospital, it is and always be exploitative and counter to the ethos of the NHS. I don’t know quite how this works, but some hospitals do say that they that they use the money to provide improvements. However, at the end of the day, when you are following your loved one to hospital in an ambulance and then have to fork out money to park before you go into see your loved one perhaps dying, to my mind that is detrimental to the health of the family coming to see the loved one in danger and detrimental to that patient’s health. I am not glad that the current government is squeezing costs in healthcare and councils, but I hope they get it right and keep the people who matter and get rid of the fools.

Ken smith says:
26 May 2013

I would like to see accounts posted within the car on last years profits , and each year thereafter.
This would show that the hospital are not profiteering off the sick.