£4m a year spent searching for missing patients an expense we cannot afford, insists PSNI chief
The task of locating patients who abscond from hospitals is costing the PSNI more than £4m a year, a senior police chief revealed yesterday.
The equivalent of 84 officers every day are needed to help find missing people from all walks of life, with a fifth of all those on the missing list absconding from Northern Ireland's general wards and psychiatric units.
The total cost of searching for people who walk out of hospitals, hostels, residential care homes and other care environments was put at £21m for the last year.
Temporary Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) Chris Noble told the Belfast Telegraph that the PSNI's role of policing the community had changed from being an "agency of last resort" to being one of "first and last resort".
He warned that the situation was not sustainable in the current funding crisis and called for a collaborative strategy by all the agencies involved to tackle the growing problem.
His comments to the Belfast Telegraph follow the release of figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request from the region's health and social care trusts on the incidence of abscondment from hospitals.
They showed that five patients absconded every day from hospital in 2014/15, with 5,500 walkouts over the last three years.
There were 921 general ward abscondments and 708 abscondments from psychiatric wards in 2012/13 (1,629) and this increased to 1,151 general ward abscondments and 878 abscondments from psychiatric wards (2,209) in 2014/15. It represents a 24.5% increase, with the biggest difference coming in the numbers of absconders from general wards of acute hospitals.
The police are alerted by hospital medical staff when there is a concern for a patient's safety either because of a missed opportunity to make a full medical assessment, or indications that the patient may be vulnerable to self-harm or harm through other means.
The ACC - who is head of the PSNI's Service Improvement Department which covers Public Protection - said there needed to be a wider discussion on providing places of safety for vulnerable people facing mental health.
He said: "In 2013/2014 we responded to 9,225 reports of missing persons, with 2,000 of those missing from hospitals and 2,500 missing from children's homes and nearly 3,000 related to people who were 18 and younger.
"Over the course of a year, one in five of missing people that we deal with leave from hospitals."
Mr Noble said that sometimes police officers turn up and the missing person could be on the grounds smoking but on other occasions they may be called out several times a night as a particular patient has chosen to leave again.
He added that on one occasion, police officers had to remain at a hospital emergency department for over 30 hours due to the challenges staff faced in getting one patient assessed.
"We are looking for a wider conversation with all the agencies in safety and care and to understand who is responsible for what," he said.
"We need timely assessments of patients and appropriate places of safety so that police can leave them to be assessed and to leave when it is appropriate."
He added that a creative approach of assigning community psychiatric nurses to support officers on patrol at key policing times would help deal with people with mental health issues.