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Delays from lack of beds is now the new normal

The British Medical Association (BMA) is warning that patients are being unfairly let down by a lack of beds in hospitals, as new analysis released today shows that overnight hospital beds in England have decreased by a fifth in a decade.

The report, published today by the BMA, highlights that across the UK, the number of hospital beds per head has fallen, at a time when demand on NHS services has increased. 

The report shows that in England:

  • Between 2006/7 and 2015/16, the number of overnight hospital beds has decreased by a fifth.
  • In 2000 there were an average of 3.8 beds per 1,000 people. This dropped to 2.4 beds by 2015;
  • In the first week of January 2017, almost three quarters of trusts had an occupancy rate of 95 per cent on at least one day of that week;
  • There is a mismatch between the supply and demand for beds which is causing bottlenecks in emergency departments. In November 2016, 15 per cent of patients – almost one in seven – spent more than four hours waiting for a hospital bed;
  • The pressures on mental health services are particularly acute. There has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of mental health beds since 2000/01. Between March and October 2016 an average of 726 mental health patients had been given out of area placements each month.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Mark Porter, BMA council chair, said:

“The UK already has the second lowest number of hospital beds per head in Europe per head and these figures paint an even bleaker picture of an NHS that is at breaking point. High bed occupancy is a symptom of wider pressure and demand on an overstretched and underfunded system. 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. When social care isn’t available, patients experience delays in moving from hospital to appropriate social care settings which damages patient care and places a significant strain on the NHS.

“In the short term we need to see bed plans that are workable and focused on the quality of care and patient experiences, rather than financial targets. But in the long term we need politicians to take their heads of out the sand and provide a sustainable solution to the funding and capacity challenges that are overwhelming the health service.”


Notes to editors

The British Medical Association (BMA) is the voice of doctors and medical students in the UK. It is an apolitical professional organisation and independent trade union, representing doctors and medical students from all branches of medicine across the UK and supporting them to deliver the highest standards of care.

For further information please contact:

British Medical Association, BMA House, Tavistock Square, London, WC1H 9JP
Telephone: 020 7383 6448 
Email: [email protected]
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