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16.12.16

Nuffield Trust: Winter hospital bed shortage poses ‘real threat’ to patient care

 As the NHS enters winter, the Nuffield Trust has warned that the acute demand on beds could threaten patient care and increase the .

The think tank released new analysis showing that last winter, the NHS needed 3,466 extra beds – the equivalent of five hospitals’ worth of beds every day – to keep services running.

On 26 January 2016, the busiest day for the NHS last winter, 4,390 extra beds were opened, or seven hospitals’ worth.

Professor John Appleby, chief economist at the Nuffield Trust, said: “With such high levels of bed occupancy linked to higher infection rates and longer waits in A&E, these pressures pose a real threat to the smooth running of hospitals and, ultimately, to patient safety.

The NHS is going into this winter in an even worse position than it was a year ago, with record deficits, worse performance against the A&E target, far more trolley waits, record delayed discharges from hospital, and fewer people getting the help they need with social care. 

“When you add into that mix the sort of intense pressure on beds we’ve demonstrated hospitals experienced last winter, patients’ care is bound to suffer.”

On average, about 95% of English hospital beds were occupied last winter, despite 85-90% being the recommended maximum.

High levels of bed occupancy lead to missed targets on A&E waiting times and problems with maintaining cleanliness and infection control, and make it harder for hospitals to deal quickly with outbreaks of flu and norovirus. They also force hospital staff to move patients between beds or place them on inappropriate wards.

NHS England has announced a special taskforce to support trusts identified as being at high risk of failing to cope with winter pressures. Leaked documents also suggest it is urging trusts to use private care to meet the 85% bed occupancy target.

Anna Crossley, professional lead for acute, emergency and critical care at the Royal College of Nursing, said that the health service did “have to question” whether measures to relieve winter pressures would be sufficient, given the “very high rate of demand”.

She called for “a serious discussion” about ensuring the right number of beds are in place.

An NHS England spokesman said: “This report looking back to last year points to the steps the NHS takes each winter to maximise bed availability, and plans are well in hand for this winter too.”

(Image c. Rui Vieira from PA Wire)

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