Shortage of hospital beds is putting lives at risk in Northern Ireland, claims nursing body
Lives are being put at risk and nursing staff stretched to breaking point due to a chronic shortage of hospital beds, it has been claimed.
The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has hit out at the reliance by health bosses on the use of escalation beds in hospitals across Northern Ireland.
Escalation beds are additional beds put in place when there are not enough beds for the number of patients who need treatment.
Figures provided by the health trusts have revealed these beds have been used thousands of times in our acute hospitals since March 2016.
Escalation beds are permanent features in wards where some of the sickest patients in Northern Ireland receive treatment.
High dependency units, stroke wards and emergency surgical wards are among the wards that are habitually running with more than 100% bed occupancy.
According to the RCN, escalation beds are rarely funded so there are not enough staff to provide adequate and safe care.
They are also frequently located in areas not designed for beds where it is impossible to preserve the dignity and privacy of patients, as well as provide safe and effective treatment.
There have been claims that patients have been warned by nursing staff that they are not safe in an escalation bed.
Examples given include stroke patients being put in beds where there is no oxygen point or call bell to alert staff in an emergency, with patients being instructed to shout for help if required.
Janice Smyth, director of the RCN in Northern Ireland, said: "The use of escalation beds was supposed to be a temporary measure, but they have become widespread and a permanent feature across all the trusts.
"The RCN was always worried about the use of escalation beds, and have actively opposed their use, as they are situated in an environment not specifically designed to provide safe and effective nursing care to patients.
"There are a range of issues related to escalation beds, such as the distances between beds, and the fact that patients are being put in spaces where there is no proper screen for privacy, or patient call bells, or equipment that nurses require.
"Most importantly, when escalation beds are used we don't have adequate nursing staff to care for the patients in them. I have no doubt that patient safety is at risk and it is certainly adding even more stress to an already overstretched nursing workforce."
Ms Smyth said the use of escalation beds has been increasing in recent years and they have now become commonplace in all Northern Ireland hospitals. "They are supposed to be put up and taken down as required but the fact of the matter is they are put up and remain up," she continued. "They become a normal part of the bed complement, as it were. We need an Assembly back at Stormont to deal with this, and other pressing issues facing our health service."
Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said it is unacceptable that health professionals are being expected to work in stressful and pressurised conditions. "The use of escalation beds is another indication that we need to get a health minister into position as soon as possible to get a grip on escalating problems right across the health and social care sector," she said.
A spokeswoman from the Health & Social Care Board said it does not encourage the regular use of escalation beds.
She said: "However, at times of increased pressure, it is an operational matter for trusts to decide if this is a necessary step to take, ensuring beds are safely staffed and patients receive the correct care in the most appropriate setting."