The last round-the-clock minor injury unit to serve a large part of South Devon has had its hours slashed in a "worrying" decision which "could cost lives".
The facility in Totnes has abolished 24-hour care in favour of a service between 8am and 9pm.
The changes, which came into effect this week, follow a six-month review by the Torbay and Southern Devon Health and Care NHS Trust. All nine other minor injury units it manages are already closed overnight. Totnes town councillor Carol Wellwood has used the service twice in the last few years, when her husband had heart attacks, including once at night. She said Torbay Hospital could be difficult to access, particularly if foul weather or accidents cause problems on the roads.
"We have a lot of elderly residents in Totnes, and I'm concerned that lives may be lost or more damage done by something like a stroke or a heart attack if patients are not getting the hep they need as early as possible."
Mrs Wellwood's husband was referred on to Torbay Hospital, but the councillor said staff were "wonderful", and gave crucial first aid.
But the trust says patient use at night is low, with nobody at all treated at the unit between 9pm and 8am between last November and December. The four people who attended were immediately sent to Torbay for more specialist urgent treatment.
The trust is concerned that the lack of patients means overnight staff are unable to maintain the required skills which are essential to providing good, safe care. It also fears that people who are seriously injured are only delaying the care they need by visiting the MIU first.
Jane Viner, the trust's director of professional practice, said the overnight closure would mean staff could be deployed to busier centres where they would receive training and experience. "Ensuring that people receive the most appropriate treatment and care is our priority and this temporary change will help to make sure that patients in Totnes get the care they need, when they need it, from qualified, experienced clinicians," she said.
"Local patients can continue to access other hospital services as before, and the MIU will operate a full service during these revised opening hours. Those requiring care overnight can also access treatment or support via the out-of-hours doctor service Devon Doctors, via NHS Direct, or at Torbay Hospital's accident and emergency department."
John Lowes, medical director at Torbay Hospital, said: "We have been serving the Totnes community for many decades and this change to the opening hours of the local MIU will make no change to the ability of our hospital to provide those people with safe, good-quality care."
The six-month review is ongoing, with a view to implementing changes by December 17.