Hospital crisis as elderly are forced to use beds

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The Independent Online
THREE local councils are to be investigated by the Department of Health after complaints that their failure to provide adequate "community care" services for the elderly is paralysing NHS hospitals.

John Bowis, the health minister, has called for teams of social services inspectors to report on the situations in Essex, Lancashire and the Wirral following concern from local MPs.

In all three areas elderly people who no longer need medical care are being forced to stay in hospitals because the local authority cannot afford to offer suitable alternatives: home helps, meals on wheels, or places in nursing or residential homes.

Beds on general, surgical and clinical wards are being blocked by geriatric patients. New patients cannot be admitted and non-emergency operations have to be cancelled.

Last weekend Arrowe Park Hospital in Wirral was forced to open a day surgery ward to cope with the number of people left waiting hours in the emergency department for a bed.Cases ranged from chest pains and breathing problems to falls. Some people waited up to eight hours in curtained cubiclesbefore being found beds.

"We are filling up with patients that we have no more to offer medically, who have been assessed free for discharge, but require extensive community support," said Frank Burns, chief executive of Wirral Hospital NHS Trust. "Social services haven't got the money. So the patients are staying with us."

At the moment, nearly 100 beds in the trust's two acute hospitals are filled with elderly patients awaiting discharge, he said. "We are not going to discharge people into circumstances where they cannot cope, but it leaves us with too few beds to cope with medical needs. It's getting impossible for us to fulfil our medical commitments." Twenty-four operations were cancelled last week, he said.

Joe Parks, 74, from Moreton, Wirral, has been waiting nearly three months for a bed in a nursing home. The place isready, but the council can't afford to send him there. Meanwhile he is stuck on a geriatric medical ward at Clatterbridge Hospital in Bebington.

"It's very unsettling," he said, "even though everything is being done for me here. I want to get in [the home] as soon as possible." Mr Parks is becoming increasingly frail, suffering from dizzy spells and incontinence, and his wheelchair-bound wife Dorothy, 70, finds it hard to cope. He has been in hospital since a fall in September.

Mr and Mrs Parks accept that one of them must go into care, but now they are left in limbo, unable to get on with sorting out their lives.

Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, Essex, has 50 beds blocked by elderly people waiting "care packages" from the social services department.

Neil Singleton, chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services' community care committee, said: "The screw is getting tighter each year. It's not just authorities who have not done some of the things the Government says they should, such as closing old people's homes. There are authorities which have done all those things - imposed charging policies for home help services, transferred homes to the independent sector, all the things Conservative MPs say are the right things to do - and they are still in difficulty."