Full scale of the winter crisis in NHS revealed

Bed occupancy rates in Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust were above safe levels for most of the winter period, which some NHS leaders described as the most challenging they had experienced.

Wednesday, 28th March 2018, 9:09 am
Updated Wednesday, 28th March 2018, 9:10 am
Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital, Cramlington

Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust’s wards were 89.3 per cent full on average during the health service’s winter period, which runs from November 20 to March 4, well above the recommended safe limit of 85 per cent.

The trust only managed to meet the 85 per cent target on 10 days during the entire winter period.

In hospitals where more than 85 per cent of beds are occupied, there is a greater risk of patients receiving inadequate care, being placed on an inappropriate ward for their condition or contracting superbugs such as MRSA, according to the British Medical Association.

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The busiest day for the hospitals during the winter period was February 13, when 96 per cent of all beds were full.

In periods of particularly intense pressure, hospitals are forced to use temporary ‘escalation’ beds. These are sometimes placed in areas not usually used for hospital patients, such as gyms or day care centres.

On November 26, there were 24 escalation beds in use, which was the highest figure recorded during the reporting period.

The average daily occupancy rate throughout England for this period was 94.4 per cent.

When the crisis was at its peak at the start of the year, the NHS instructed hospitals to delay non-urgent treatment such as joint operations and cataract surgery to relieve pressure on accident and emergency departments. The latest figures for December and January show that hospitals in England also cancelled 601 urgent procedures such as cancer operations.

The winter crisis also impacted patients in need of emergency care, who often experienced long waits for treatment in A&E departments.

NHS England says no patient should have to wait longer than 15 minutes in an ambulance before being transferred to A&E. But figures show 1,102 emergency patients in Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust waited between 30 and 60 minutes before they were handed over and 288 waited for at least an hour. In total, 11,871 people arrived by ambulance during the winter period. The waits, known as handover delays, can be due to ambulance queues or slow processing at hospitals, and can have the knock-on effect of delaying paramedics being despatched to future emergencies.

Dr Jeremy Rushmer, executive medical director at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said: “This winter has been incredibly challenging for the NHS as a whole and we have experienced sustained high demand for our services and periods of intense pressures.

“While we expect this time of year to be extremely busy, the situation this winter has been exacerbated by outbreaks of norovirus and flu – the worst we’ve seen for many years.

“However, it is important to note that bed occupancy figures are reported under the national definition of ‘general and acute beds’ and include areas which would not be suitable for adult patients admitted in an emergency.

“While our staff have coped admirably despite these pressures, we’d like to apologise to patients who have experienced long waits, however, we must always prioritise based on clinical need.”