Fewer hospital beds but patient demand growing, new health figures reveal
Hospital beds in Northern Ireland are decreasing as patient demand grows, while more than 400 outpatient appointments are cancelled by the health service every day, new figures have revealed.
The Department of Health statistics released yesterday focused on two areas - inpatient and day case admissions, and consultant-led outpatient appointments.
In the last year there were a total of 615,271 inpatient and day case admissions - almost 10,000 (9,423) more than in 2012/13.
In the same period the average amount of available hospital beds dropped by 370 - from 6,280 to 5,910.
During the last year this was most sharply felt in the mental health programme of care, where the average amount of daily beds fell by 35 - a drop from 549 in 2015/16 to 514 this year.
During 2016/17 the average occupancy rate for hospital beds in Northern Ireland was 83.9%, a small increase from 83.7% in both 2015/16 and 2012/13.
Since 2012/13, however, average hospital stays have decreased slightly from 6.4 to six days.
Rehabilitation accounted for the longest hospital stays, with an average stay of 27 days, compared to the shortest stay across acute specialities of 0.3 days for radiology patients.
For the second set of figures, consultant-led outpatient appointments, it was revealed that almost one in 10 patients cancelled without giving notice.
In the last year there were over 1.5 million attendances (1,507,580). This represented a drop of 11,849 attendances from 2015/16.
In addition, 24,445 patients attended private consultant-led appointments, commissioned by the health service.
In total, 132,288 patients missed their appointments without giving suitable notice. This was highest for mental health patients, followed by those with learning disabilities and for elderly care.
In addition, 189,374 patients cancelled their appointments. This was highest for elderly care followed by acute services.
In October last year a survey by the Northern Ireland Pensioners' Parliament revealed that almost half of those questioned complained of difficulties in getting to appointments due to issues like poor public transport connections and parking difficulties.
Hospitals also cancelled 155,084 appointments, with around a third (54,658) because no suitable consultant was available.
Combined, this means almost half-a-million appointments were not attended for various reasons (476,746) in this area during 2016/17.
This time last year the Belfast Telegraph reported that, again, almost 60,000 outpatient appointments were cancelled due to the unavailability of doctors and nurses and that thousands more had been put off due to administrative errors. Speaking at the time, Patricia McKeown from the health workers' union Unison commented: "You cannot live with six or seven years of budget cuts without pressure on the system.
"We are well below the level of doctors and nurses that we should have."
For Integrated Clinical Assessment and Treatment Services (ICATS) - which covers a range of outpatient services held by multi-disciplinary teams, including GPs and specialist nurses - there was a slight increase in patients cancelling appointments.
During 2016/17, 116,336 patients were seen at an ICATS service in Northern Ireland, an increase of more than 8,000 since the previous year.
And 10,770 patients missed an appointment in 2016/17 without giving notice while 15,595 cancelled their appointments.
Hospitals also cancelled 8,689 ICATS appointments during 2016/17, slightly fewer than the previous year.