THE patients' watchdog for Swindon has defended itself against criticism that it failed to stay vigilant during the IMH crisis.

Users of five GP surgeries overseen Integral Medical Holdings staged a series of protests in the town as technical issues led to lengthy waits on the phone and huge problems with booking appointments.

The Manchester-based firm announced it would be withdrawing from primary care in the town last month.

But there were questions asked after Healthwatch was been awarded a new contract by the council to be the eyes and ears of health service users in Swindon.

Labour councillor Bob Wright said at a meeting of the adults health, care and housing overview and scrutiny committee: “Why was it up to individuals and groups of patients to start up campaigns about it? Healthwatch exists to be an independent body acting in the interest of patients, that’s its role. People felt they had to start campaigns themselves. The independent body should have had the resources to make a difference itself.

“Healthwatch has been given a new contract, but I’d like a report into its role.”

Coun Wright added: “A lot of what people say about IMH is that it’s a journey, but for a lot of patients it was a crisis.”

But Healthwatch, which is a national organisation with different branches, says it did plenty to report and raise concerns about IMH’s work with the five surgeries.

A spokesman said: “ Healthwatch Swindon gathered patients feedback on services provided by IMH, this information was feedback to the CCG and CQC.

"We challenged Martyn Diaper, the CEO of IMH, at the health overview and scrutiny committee, after he stated that the call centre was staffed with 15 people, when Healthwatch’s Enter and View (statutory power) found only five people working, and we linked into the Care Quality Commission to raise these issues and arranged for the CQC to speak to patients who receive services from IMH."

The spokesman added that a patient participation group was set up at Eldene Surgery by a Healthwatch volunteer, and it is in the process of setting up a similar group at Moredon – and that its findings where taken to the quality surveillance group for NHS South West north “for escalation”.

A Swindon Borough Council spokesman said: “We commission Healthwatch to gather feedback from residents to help improve the quality of health services in Swindon.

“Healthwatch has been heavily involved in helping to resolve the recent IMH issues and has been working with the Care Quality Commission, the CCG and the town’s two MPs.

"Part of this included challenging IMH to improve its communication with patients and Healthwatch is now in the process of setting up a patient participation group at Moredon to help improve services further having worked closely with the existing group at Eldene.

“We have not received any concerns about the quality of Healthwatch services and we believe it is doing a good job in representing the need and concerns of patients.”