Four out of five NHS hospitals are relying on emergency surgical beds to provide enough space for routine patients as they try to keep up with soaring demand, new research has found.
Surgical beds are typically held in reserve so patients starting surgery have somewhere to recuperate, but Freedom of Information requests by the British Medical Association (BMA) show they’re routinely needed for everyday use.
If a surgical bed is unavailable operations may have to be cancelled, this adds to already significant waiting lists which have seen waits for cancer treatment and routine operations grow “unacceptably”.
The BMA findings come as Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, admitted for the first time that decades of bed cuts were no longer sustainable.
He said the new approach represented “quite a significant gear shift”.
The BMA says 3,000 beds are the minimum that will be needed to end the reliance on emergency beds. But as many as 5,000 might have to be deployed to ensure all parts of the system stay within safe occupancy levels.
Its research found that on 3 March this year, there were at least 3,428 escalation beds in operation across all 134 acute trusts in England.
On 1 May, there were 1,637 escalation beds still in use according to the 80 trusts who provided data for that date. Some 54 trusts failed to respond, suggesting the true figure was far higher.
Dr Rob Harwood, chairman of the BMA consultants committee, said: “The use of escalation beds is a sign that trusts are at a critical stage and are unable to cope with demand with their current bed stock.
“Some hospitals are forced to designate their theatre recovery beds as ‘escalation’, resulting in elective surgical operations being cancelled as there is no space for those patients who need immediate care after their surgery.
Dr Harwood said the BMA and other groups had been lobbying for up to 10,000 more NHS beds and accompanying staff.
Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), said hospital bosses should only increase bed capacity if they have sufficient nursing staff to care for the people in them.
“If they don’t, it cannot be done safely. Full-to-bursting hospitals, low on staff, are not places people want to be treated or work.”
The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: “The use of escalation beds is yet another sign that hospitals are struggling to cope under continued pressure. We know this is compromising patient care.
“The Tories and, in coalition, the Lib Dems, have run down the NHS and imposed the biggest funding squeeze in its history.”
An NHS England spokesperson said: “The NHS Long Term Plan sets out a series of measures to keep more people well with the care they need in the community, but local areas are also looking at how many beds they will need to help them deliver the improvements in care we want to see, and where they identify a case for more beds we will support them in seeking the capital investment to deliver this.”
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