A patient is taken to the operating theatre at Birmingham Queen Elizabeth Hospital
A patient is taken to the operating theatre at Birmingham Queen Elizabeth Hospital

NHS crisis: Intensive care bed shortages are forcing doctors to choose who lives and dies

BBC documentary shows cancer-suffering old age pensioners forced to compete for care

Matt Broomfield
Monday 09 January 2017 14:19

NHS doctors are being forced to choose who lives and who dies as a shortage of intensive care beds means terminally ill patients are being refused life-saving surgery.

Oesophagus cancer sufferer Simon, 67, is one patient whose missed operations were exposed by film-makers.

He has twice had operations to remove his tumour cancelled to make way for emergency procedures, and was told he and a critically ill 78-year-old were in direct competition for an intensive care bed.

"If they die then the bed is available for me, but if not they've got the bed," he said during filming for the documentary, which is broadcast this Wednesday on the BBC. "[I feel] guilty, actually."

Jeremy Hunt on NHS mortality rates

The film-makers secured unprecedented access to five NHS hospitals across six weeks, and revealed the human cost of wide-spread bed shortages across the NHS.

In St. Mary's Hospital in London, where Simon is awaiting treatment, there are only sixteen intensive care beds. Simon Ashworth, who heads the over-stretched unit, said: "Everyone thinks what they're doing is important and, guess what, everybody's right."

Figures show A&E departments shut their doors to patients more than 140 times in December, while a third of NHS trusts in England have issued alerts as they are struggling to cope with demand, according to the Nuffield Trust.

Fifteen hospitals across England were running at 100% capacity in the weeks running up to Christmas, according to an official report.

Speaking to the Independent, trade union leader Len McCluskey said: "Health economists have consistently said that by forcing the NHS to make £20 billion in savings by 2020, the government is driving this service into crisis.

“The government knows all too well that the funding for the service falls far short of what is needed to meet the challenges presented by the monstrous debts carried by hospital trusts, from an ageing population and from the pitiful absence of a reliable, decent social care service, which is urgently needed to take the pressure off the frontline NHS.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to deny a warning from British Red Cross that hospitals are facing a “humanitarian crisis” after the organisation stepped in to support the overstretched health service.

And Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has also been on the defensive. Quizzed about the BBC documentary on Radio 4, he said "“It’s an unspeakable tragedy when something like that happens. There are massive pressures in the NHS but what I don’t want to see is a return to the bad old days when people are waiting too long for their operations.”

Hospital is on BBC Two at 9pm on Wednesday.

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