Elderly patients may be discharged earlier and nurses given extra training in physiotherapy under plans to free more hospital beds. Health ministers are studying the proposals in an attempt to reduce "bed blocking" by elderly patients who stay though they are not ill enough for medical care.

Elderly patients may be discharged earlier and nurses given extra training in physiotherapy under plans to free more hospital beds. Health ministers are studying the proposals in an attempt to reduce "bed blocking" by elderly patients who stay though they are not ill enough for medical care.

Research suggests one-fifth of beds are used by people who do not need continued medical treatment. The NHS could place older patients in private nursing homes to recuperate, a Department of Health review of bed use is expected to say in July. The Health minister John Denham said yesterday the Government would be "daft" not to take that proposal seriously, since hospital beds cost £1,200 a week each.

"You have got a lot of patients, particularly elderly patients, in hospitals who don't need to be there but can't yet go home because they need rehabilitation," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

But David Hinchliffe, the Labour chairman of the Health Select Committee, said: "I don't see the way forward as using the nursing home sector because that sector is not geared to the rehabilitation process these patients will require."

Health ministers set up an "action team" of professional advisers last month to draft detailed proposals on releasing the "blocked" beds. One of them, Dr Chai Patel, said the suggestions included giving patients daily home nursing visits or improved care by relatives at home, to allow them to leave hospital earlier.

Nurses could also be trained in basic physiotherapy and occupational therapy to help speed rehabilitation of patients, and ensure shortages of physiotherapists does not mean patients are forced to remain longer in hospital.

Dr Patel, the chief executive of Westminster Healthcare, Britain's third-biggest nursing home company, denied the private sector would charge the NHS a special rate of £400 a week for elderly patients. He said the realistic cost was nearer £700 to £1,000 a week, but he insisted it was a cheaper and more viable alternative to using scarce NHS resources to build extra hospitals.

Dr Patel, the architect of the proposal, acknowledged that the homes would have to offer a high standard of nursing care and agree to strict supervision. "This isn't an abdication of responsibility by the NHS," he said. "This is an ongoingrelationship between public services and the private sector."

The Tories and Liberal Democrats welcomed the proposals, but Dr Liam Fox, the shadow Health Secretary, said the Government appeared to be confused on whether it supported or opposed involvement by the private sector in the health service.

Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said: "If the private sector has the capacity to do the job at a good price then it makes sense to take that up, and they should have done it long ago."

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