NHS swamped by elderly who can't afford to keep warm

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The Independent Online
DOCTORS are blaming increased fuel bills for the growing beds crisis in National Health Service hopspitals.

They say that more pensioners are being admitted to hospital because they have made themselves vulnerable to illness by cutting their consumption of fuel and allowing their homes to grow too cold.

A survey at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport, Cheshire, shows that a third of elderly patients admitted had reduced the heating in their homes because of fears about the extra costs created by the addition of VAT to gas and electricity bills.

Sixty patients also told doctors they had cut back on the amount of food they ate, to pay for fuel. Poor diet, like living in cold homes, exposes the elderly to infection and high risks of heart attacks and strokes.

A second study, in Scotland, found that two-thirds of the elderly people who were admitted with hypothermia had heating available at home, but did not turn it on. A team of seven senior doctors who carried out the research in the west of Scotland estimate that hypothermia now causes 4,000 hospital admissions a year.

Hospitals reached crisis point last week as doctors around the country reported they were running out of beds for emergency admissions.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said the urged the Government to take immediate action to help and declared that system was at "breaking point".

Doctors say that the number of intensive care beds - just over 1,000 in England - needs to be trebled to match other European countries. Figures released by the BMA, meanwhile show that the average daily number of available hospital beds across all departments in England has fallen from 255,000 in 1990/91 to 212,000 in 1994/95. The number of emergency beds had dropped from 117,000 in 1990/91 to 108,000 in 1994/95.

Over the same period the average daily number of geriatric hospital beds has dropped from 55,571 to 36,795, the BMA says. This despite the fact that there are believed to be many more cases of strokes, heart and respiratory conditions among elderly patients who do not keep their homes warm in winter.

The research from Stepping Hill Hospital, which is due to be published in the journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, shows that confirms the elderly's cutback on heating. One third of 200 elderly patients admitted as acute cases last winter said they had difficulty keeping warm at home. Half had cut their heating because of VAT.

One of the authors, senior registrar Rosemary Morgan, said: "If you are feeling cold you are more vulnerable to chest infections. These people are becoming much more vulnerable to getting infections or a general deterioration needing hospital treatment.

"I believe that if VAT was abolished for elderly people it might reduce the number of admissions to hospital."

Jonathan Wyatt, senior registrar in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary accident and emergency unit and one of the team who conducted the west of Scotland study, said: "In our study most of those who became hypothermic at home had heating available but were not using it. One reason is the cost, or perceived cost, of fuel. It remains a worry that future increases in fuel bills may influence elderly people to use heating even more sparingly, placing even more of them at risk."

Archie Young, professor of geriatric medicine at the Royal Free Hospital, endorsed this view. "It is an entirely reasonable hypothesis," he said.

A Department of Health spokesman said, "We do provide information to the elderly which points out that they can get help and cold weather payments, and income support was uprated for pensioners. The advice we give is that keeping warm is vital if you are to stay healthy. If you can't afford to keep your house or flat warm in every room, you should keep one room warm."