512 people told they could leave NI hospitals died waiting to go home
More than 500 people died in hospitals across Northern Ireland over three years while waiting to be discharged, it can be revealed.
Official figures have highlighted the scale of the crisis facing social and community care in Northern Ireland, with 512 people medically fit for discharge dying in a hospital ward between 2016/17 and 2018/19.
Bed-blocking, as it is known, is when a person has been assessed as no longer requiring hospital inpatient treatment, but is not discharged.
This can happen for a range of reasons - in some cases, it is through patient choice, but the vast majority of cases happen because there is no community care package in place.
However, it is widely recognised that outcomes for older people, in particular, are lower when they remain in hospital unnecessarily.
In the Southern Trust, 146 people died in hospital after being cleared to be discharged over the three-year period, 131 died in the Belfast Trust, 97 in the South Eastern Trust, 76 in the Northern Trust and 62 in the Western Trust.
Figures released after a Freedom of Information request have also highlighted the lengthy waits being endured by patients.
The longest wait between 2016/17 and 2018/19 was in the Southern Trust, with a patient in Craigavon Psychiatric Unit spending a staggering 446 days waiting to be discharged.
Under reform of mental health services, there is a shift towards treating people in the community where possible.
There is also an attempt to resettle long-stay patients from learning disability hospitals into the community, however, chronic underfunding of the community sector is holding up the process.
According to official figures, the longest wait by a patient to be discharged over the three years in the Belfast Trust was 294 days, followed by a 221-day wait in the South Eastern Trust.
A patient waited 207 days to be discharged in the Western Trust, although this was their choice, while in the Northern Trust, the longest wait was 98 days.
The Commissioner for Older People in Northern Ireland has hit out at the statistics and called on health officials to act the address the issue. Eddie Lynch said: "I'm saddened to hear about the high number of people who have died in hospital while waiting to be discharged.
"This affects many older people who are having to remain in hospital for longer than is necessary as a result of no community care packages or a lack of beds in residential or nursing homes.
"It is concerning, but unfortunately this is not a new problem.
"It is not good enough that anyone has to stay in a hospital setting for longer than needs be and I would call on the Department for Health and the Health and Social Care Trusts to ensure that adequate provision is put in place." In a statement on behalf of the health and social care system, a spokeswoman said: "Growing numbers of people are living longer with complex needs and this is why the reform of adult care and support project has been tasked with identifying and implementing necessary reforms to enhance the support available in communities.
"There is also a very strong commitment to ensuring that any patient in the end stages of life is treated with absolute care and compassion.
"Trusts do their utmost to support and prioritise the wishes of patients at the end of life and their families, including facilitating their return to a home or a community setting, where it is appropriate to do so.
"The Palliative Care in Partnership initiative in Northern Ireland brings together statutory and community and voluntary sector providers, including Marie Curie, and also service users and carers to improve how patients with palliative care needs are identified and supported, and also seeks to enhance the range of services available."
Yesterday, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that almost 48,000 people faced delays in being discharged from Northern Ireland hospitals over the same three-year period.
More than 139,000 bed days were lost to delayed discharges between 2016/17 and 2018/19, at a cost to the health service of £63.5m.