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12-hour waits for emergency treatment soar by 10,500% in five years

The number of patients having to sit through waits of more than 12 hours in emergency departments in England over winter has soared by a staggering 10,546% over the last five years.

Analysis carried out by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) found that 1,597 people waited over 12 hours for care between January to March this year compared to only 15 patients for the same period in 2012.

RCEM’s research will add to the growing evidence that this winter could be another very difficult period for trusts, with waiting times soaring, beds occupancy reaching dangerous levels and demand for services hitting its peak. 

“Patients should not have to endure such long waits, particularly in colder conditions when frail patients are more vulnerable,” said Dr Taj Hassan, president of the RCEM.

“Winter last year was relatively mild and without a major outbreak of flu. There are indications that the flu vaccine will not be as successful this year and as such we anticipate that conditions will be even more difficult this winter.”

The emergency medicine lead explained that these long waits are often due to exit block in community care and a lack of flow in systems.

“While we have worked with NHS Improvement to produce an Emergency Flow Improvement Tool to help emergency departments, in anticipation of a difficult winter, we worry that without the appropriate resources this will not be enough to significantly improve conditions for patients,” Dr Hassan continued.

“To do this, we believe that we need around 5,000 extra beds, which will help reduce bed occupancy levels and enable patients to be admitted more swiftly.

“Over the last five years there has been a continued reduction in bed numbers yet an increase in patients needing to be admitted. As a result, bed occupancy is now at 92% - significantly higher than the safe level of 85% - which is having a knock-on effect on waiting times.”

The figures were also cause for concern for the BMA, which said the analysis “paints the reality of an ever deepening crisis in an NHS at breaking point and it is staggering to see the skyrocketing number of patients waiting 12 hours or more on a hospital trolley.”

BMA council chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul commented: “The UK already has the second lowest number of hospital beds per person within Europe. This is a result of a severely underfunded health system which is putting increasing pressure on overstretched services unable to meet escalating demands.

“The failure to properly invest in social care has placed significant additional strain on the NHS and means patients see considerable delays moving from hospital to an appropriate social care setting.”

Dr Nagpaul also argued it was concerning to see the government struggling to learn lessons from repeated seasons of poor performance and plan appropriately for a predictable period of greater activity. 

“In the short term, we need to see realistic bed plans focused on patient experiences and high-quality care rather than a view to meeting financial target,” he explained. “But in the long term we need politicians to stop ignoring this impending crisis and provide a sustainable solution to the funding and capacity challenges that are overwhelming the health service.”

Top Image: Peter Byrne PA Wire

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