Hospitals across Northern Ireland have been axing more than five beds a week over the past five years.
The shocking Government statistics are revealed amid ongoing concerns over the ability of A&E departments to cope – combined with rising numbers of inpatients.
The figures, published by the Department of Health, show that since 2008 1,418 beds have been shed from wards throughout Ulster.
On average, that's five beds a week, or 22 every month.
Politicians have now voiced concerns that the closures – part of a huge overhaul of the health system – may be happening "too quickly" and have called for a halt to any further losses ahead of winter.
The changes are part of the biggest review of health and social services in Northern Ireland in a generation, Transforming Your Care (TYC), with a shift to more community-based nurse-led care.
Earlier this year Health Minister Edwin Poots confirmed he is set to cut a further 180 hospital beds over the next four years. He said while he acknowledges the reforms have caused concern, they are necessary and will improve patient care.
MLA and member of the Stormont health committee, Kieran McCarthy (below), said he feared beds were being closed "too quickly".
"I would call for a halt or a slow down, particularly in TYC," he said.
Mr McCarthy said TYC had support – but the correct structure had to be in place to ensure patients were getting the best care.
He added: "We are not that far into TYC, but if this trend continues there could be a disaster at the end of it."
Other key statistics showed that 151 beds were closed between 2011 and 2013, a drop from 6,439 to 6,288 beds.
It also revealed out of the 611,505 patients admitted in 2012/13 , 49.3% (301,266) were admitted as inpatients. Mr McCarthy said it was "vital" to have sufficient beds available ahead of winter.
He added: "Maybe a pause should be exercised now to take on board the figures.
"If we end up with a lack of beds and a crisis evolves – again it is the patient who will suffer."
The Department of Health and a number of trusts said a range of factors had contributed to the reduction of acute beds. These include:
e Greater emphasis on day case interventions so fewer patients are required to stay in.
e A marked reduction in the length of time hospital stays.
The South Eastern Health Trust said bed availability decreased from 2008 to 2013, but the average bed availability had increased by 2.7% in the past year.
The Belfast Trust said it had treated nearly 2% more inpatients and day cases between the Mater, Royal Victoria and Belfast City hospitals in 2012/13. But Garrett Martin of the Royal College of Nurses Northern Ireland said losing almost 20% of hospital beds was "significant".
And he warned that unless money was put into community services, removing beds will create more problems – including placing more pressure on staff.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said the changes "have not adversely impacted on the safety and quality of care to patients".
She added: "The minister recognises that our health and social care system continues to face many challenges and has stressed that we can only meet these by looking at how we can provide services differently and that is a core element of the vision underpinning Transforming Your Care."
- - - - - -
A HEALTH SHAKE-UP THAT'S NOT PAIN-FREE
Transforming Your Care is the biggest review of health and social services in Northern Ireland in a generation.
It was commissioned in June 2011 by Health Minister Edwin Poots when he took over the Department of Health.
It is aimed at introducing more community-based care but has sparked controversy.
The TYC programme was launched in recognition that people in Northern Ireland are living longer and, therefore, will make a greater demand on local health services in the coming years.
It was deemed necessary as the health service is struggling to cope, yet demand for services is predicted to grow by around 4% a year until 2015.
The review team, led by John Compton, chief executive of the Health and Social Care Board, produced a document containing 99 proposals.
As part of the process, health trusts were instructed to outline their plans to implement closures in their respective areas.
With trusts announcing plans to close up to 100% of their facilities, the minister was forced to step in and announce a temporary reprieve.
Mr Poots was forced into the embarrassing U-turn over the highly controversial changes to residential care services following the angry public backlash.
In July health union Unison warned the residential care homes could still close "by stealth".
Mr Poots has stood firm that Transforming Your Care reforms will improve the NHS.
Among the proposals is the closure of 180 hospital beds by 2017.
He described the reduction of hospital beds as one of the "practical out-workings" of the (TYC) health reform programme.
Patricia McKeown, Unison's regional secretary, said: "The closure of 180 beds in a health system which is already reeling from too many bed closures is designed to reduce nurses and other healthcare staff. It will throw A&E departments into deeper crisis."