Financial Pressure Has NHS Hospitals Becoming Dangerously Overcrowded
A report by the Kings Fund warns that NHS hospitals are becoming too overcrowded to be a safe environment for patients. The report predicts that conditions in hospitals will only worsen over the next year.
In the last 26 years, the number of beds in hospitals has halved, from around 300,000 in 1987/8 to 150,000 last year. The number of beds was reduced in an attempt to gradually increase the treatment of patients at home. However, in the meantime, the number of patients showing up at hospitals has risen, leaving them being packed into wards which are not meant to accommodate so many.
The average NHS hospital is currently 90% full – a worrying figure because 85% is considered to be the maximum amount for safety. Some wards are now over 95% full. Overcrowded wards can impact the safety of patients because of factors such as the increased risk of infection spreading.
“There is clear pressure in the system to use beds more intensively as the money is tighter, but patients keep turning up at the front door,” says John Appleby, chief economist at the Kings Fund. “If they are used too intensively you haven’t got time to clean up between patients. The pressure is building and bubbling out in terms of bed occupancy levels which are getting dangerously high. There are potential dangers with infection and not having enough time to clean beds.”
The report says that hospitals simply do not have enough money to ensure that patients are treated promptly. As this financial year ends, the NHS have already have overspent its budget by more than £800million, and half of hospitals are in the red.
“The next Government will inherit a health service that has run out of money and is operating at the very edge of its limits,” says Appleby. “While the NHS has performed well in the face of huge challenges, there is now a real risk that patient care will deteriorate as service and financial pressures become overwhelming. Our assessment is it’s going to be very difficult indeed next year.”
Appleby speculates that the financial pressure is going to lead to increased waiting times for patients. Meanwhile, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham says that the Kings Fund report shows that David Cameron has broken his promise to protect the NHS.
“What this report reveals is that he is on course to create a large deficit in the NHS,” says Burnham. “Hospitals are now trapped in a financial vicious circle with bills for agency staff running out of control and staff failing to keep pace with demand.”