Bed crisis has created ‘mismatch’ between NHS supply and demand

A new report from the BMA has found that a drop in overnight hospital bed spaces has created a ‘mismatch’ for NHS trusts as supply is unable to cope with the enormous stresses being placed on hospitals in the UK, particularly with regards to mental health services.

In the report, ‘State of the Health System, Beds in the NHS: UK’, it was revealed that in the first week of January this year, almost three quarters of NHS trusts had bed occupancy rates of more than 95% for at least one day of the month, as it was also found that one in seven patients waited more than four hours in A&E departments waiting for a bed last November.

The BMA found that over time from 1987-88 to 2015-16 the average number of beds had dropped from 300,000 to just under 150,000.

The report stated: “In the UK, at a time when demand for NHS care is growing, the number of beds has continued to decline significantly. Overall, the number of people attending emergency departments, and from there being admitted into hospital, is increasing.

“Increased demand, which is closely linked to the rising prevalence of long-term conditions, is coupled with a growing number of older people – the highest users of beds – who often have multiple, complex conditions, including dementia.”

The paper also looked specifically at mental health services, finding that there had been a 44% drop in beds – something which had led to “particularly acute pressures” being placed on units – on average 726 patients had to be found beds out of their areas between March and October in 2016.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Mark Porter, BMA council chair, said that they painted a bleak picture of a health service at breaking point.

High bed occupancy is a symptom of wider pressure and demand on an overstretched and underfunded system,” he added. “It causes delays in admissions, operations being cancelled and patients being unfairly and sometimes repeatedly let down. The delays that vulnerable patients are facing, particularly those with mental health issues, have almost become the norm and this is unacceptable.”

Dr Porter also pointed to the failure of social care systems to take pressure off “an already stretched and underfunded NHS”.

The report went on to recommend several measures for NHS bed plans to tackle the issue, including A&E departments planning ahead to cope with changes in population health needs, as well as additional funding and support for community care to allow patients to leave hospital and be cared for in the community.

Responding to the findings, a DH spokesperson said: “This analysis is inaccurate — the figures come from two different time periods when the way of counting beds was different, and so they aren't comparable.”

The spokesperson did admit, though, that the UK’s hospitals were “busier than ever”, adding: “But thanks to the hard work of staff, our performances are still amongst the best in the world. We have backed the NHS' own plan for the future with an extra £10billion by 2020”.

The BMA responded to the department’s criticism of the findings by saying their analysis showed that number of beds had decreased steadily in both periods.

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