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Bed crisis a threat to patient safety

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BEDRIDDEN: Doctors have reported stresses and strains in the NHS bed system

A decade-long drop in overnight hospital beds has created a ‘mismatch’ between supply and demand in the NHS.

This is one of the key findings from analysis by the BMA of bed numbers, occupancy and rising demand across the UK.

Doctors have reported ‘substantial problems and strains’ in the NHS bed system. ‘In the UK, at a time when demand for NHS care is growing, the number of beds has continued to decline significantly,’ the report adds.

‘There is a concern among doctors and other healthcare professionals that staff may feel pressured to free up beds. In the worst-case scenario this can lead to patients being discharged before it is safe or appropriate to do so.’

The report, State of the Health  System, Beds in the NHS: UK, finds that in England:

  • In the first week of January 2017, almost three quarters of trusts had occupancy rates of more than 95 per cent on at least one day
  • Almost one in seven patients waited more than four hours in emergency departments for beds last November
  • A 44 per cent drop in mental health service beds has led to ‘particularly acute pressures’. On average, 726 patients had to be found beds out of their areas between March and October last year.

BMA council chair Mark Porter said the figures painted a bleak picture of an NHS 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.

‘Failures within the social care system are also having a considerable knock-on effect on an already stretched and underfunded NHS.’

The report recommends several measures for NHS bed plans to help close the gap between supply and demand, including:

  • The need to plan ahead for service demands and anticipate changes in population health needs
  • A focus on quality care, safety and patient experience
  • Funding and support for community care so patients can leave hospital without delay
  • Prioritising mental healthcare close to patients’ homes.

The Department of Health said the figures were from different time periods when the ‘way of counting beds was different’, but BMA analysis shows the number of beds decreased steadily in both periods.

State of the Health  System, Beds in the NHS: UK

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