Birmingham hospitals may lose 1,500 beds

PROPOSALS to close up to 1,500 hospital beds in Greater Birmingham - about a quarter of the total - while investing pounds 20m next year in primary care, were disclosed yesterday.

The West Midlands Regional Health Authority said the bed closures would come over the next five years as day surgery and shorter lengths of stay reduced the need for them, and as pounds 17m a year is transferred out of Greater Birmingham under the NHS funding formula.

The sweeping changes would affect 1.4 million people in Birmingham, Sandwell and Solihull. It is proposed that all large hospitals should be slimmed down rather than some be shut. The consultative document, Looking Forward, says closing a major hospital would be easier and save more money. However, people would then be forced to travel for care.

The new package replaces the pounds 500m Building a Healthy Birmingham plan which proved hopelessly ambitious a few years ago. But it would still see a string of specialist hospitals and units close and merge, with the Children's Hospital transferred into a refurbished General Hospital, and the Eye, Skin and Women's hospitals all closing and moving into other hospitals. Cancer services will be concentrated at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

To help make the plan viable in a city where the health services have been in crisis, the region yesterday wrote off last year's pounds 12.5m deficit incurred by South Birmingham Health Authority. It is likely to do the same for a similar sum this year.

Behind the plan are assumptions that day surgery, which accounts for 43 per cent of all planned surgery, will rise to at least 60 per cent of the total, while the length of stay in hospital, which has already been cut by a third for medical patients in five years, will fall further. Earlier diagnosis, faster-acting drugs, better hospital management and improved community services allow that, the document says.

Dr Ken Taylor, co-ordinator of the Birmingham Doctors' Emergency Admissions Group, said he was 'appalled' by the loss of up to 1,500 beds. 'I do not believe that number is justified by the facts, and I am sure it is driven entirely by the financial consideration that Greater Birmingham is to lose pounds 17m a year under the funding formula.'