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Patients increasingly ‘diverted’ as A&Es struggle to cope this winter

A growing number of patients are being turned away from A&E departments and ‘diverted’ to other hospitals due to a lack of capacity this winter, prompting further concerns that patient health could suffer.

NHS England data has revealed that more patients arriving by ambulance were redirected to other hospitals in December 2016 compared to the same period over the last four years, despite ‘diverts’ being seen by the NHS as a last resort.

Analysis by the Guardian revealed that from 2 to 23 December in 2016 the number of patients forced to go elsewhere was 95, an increase by 73% on the 55 people turned away in 2015. There were 60 incidences in 2014 and 16 in 2013.

The chief executive of the Patients’ Association, Katherine Murphy, warned that the diversion of ambulances meant it took longer for patients to get care, saying: “Diverting isn’t an answer to providing a safe system.”

Murphy added that longer inpatient stays due to inadequate social care provision have been putting rising pressure on hospitals, particularly in the winter. As a result, patients who need an acute bed are often forced to be taken to another hospital for treatment.

An NHS England spokesperson said that it was “common sense” that ambulances spread the emergency load between neighbouring hospitals in order to prevent pressure on services.

“While hospitals are under pressure they have generally been coping with the increased number and severity of winter illnesses,” the spokesperson noted.

Dr Mark Porter, chair of council for the British Medical Association (BMA), disagreed, stressing that each one of the diverts represented a failure to give a patient the treatment they need due to the NHS’s inability to keep up with rising demand.

“Frontline staff are under serious pressure and are working flat out, but the system can’t cope with the number of patients needing to move through acute care, as it is congested,” Dr Porter said.

“We can only get to grips with pressure on A&E if every part of the system – from general practice to social care – is adequately funded, supported and working well.”

The NHS is set to endure its most difficult winter ever, with the specialist health communications and policy firm Incisive Health speculating that over 785,883 patients could end up waiting more than the maximum four hour target for A&E care from December to February, up from 613,971 last year.

The firm’s projections are based on a 28% year-on-year rise in such delays which has been seen each year from 2010-11 to 2015-16.

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