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Lack of hospital beds harming patients, doctors warn

Patients are being harmed because there are not enough hospital beds, leading doctors have said.

UK hospitals are "bulging at the seams", the British Medical Association's (BMA) annual representative meeting in Belfast heard.

The UK is lagging behind Romania, Austria, France , Germany and Belgium in terms of bed numbers, doctors said.

Representatives at the meeting said that the dwindling number of beds needs to be "urgently re-evaluated".

Dr Michael Hardingham, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, from Cheltenham, said: " Patients are being harmed because they are being sent home as there are no beds available."

Presenting a motion, which claimed " trends in reducing hospital beds have gone too far and need to be urgently re-evaluated", Dr Hardingham said: "For those of us who work in surgical wards, we know only too well what it's like to come in in the morning and find orthopaedic outliers, which means one can't get one's own patients into beds and have to send them home.

"I have been working long enough to remember that working in the 1960s, I would say that probably then, I did at least twice as many cases in a day's work, possibly three times, and this is largely due to difficulties with beds.

"The recovery wards get blocked up because they can't move people out into the hospital beds, and so patients who have been booked just have to be sent home.

"Paediatrics patients and their families often have to travel long distances to a bed, particular when there are epidemics.

"I move for more beds. Let's stop having these black alerts, which must constantly plague general practitioners in trying to get hospital patients into their local hospitals."

Dr Mary McCarthy, a GP from Shropshire, added: " Hospital beds in the UK have been steadily eroded without the corresponding increase in social care that is needed to support this move.

"The UK has less than 300 beds per 100,000 population and in Shropshire, where I am, it's less than 200.

"In the Irish Republic a few miles south of here it's about 500, in Belgium it's over 650, in France it's over 700, in Germany it's over 800, in Austria it's over 700, in Romania it's over 600.

"Do we really need to keep cutting beds? Are we not finding that our hospitals are bulging at the seams with people who should be there but are discharged home too early and unsafely?"

An overwhelming majority of delegates at the meeting voted in favour of the motion.

Dr Mark Porter, chairman of council at the BMA, said: "In theory, reducing the number of acute beds may appear beneficial as the NHS can supposedly exploit the reductions in length of stay to help treat more patients.

"However, this can be taken too far. If average bed occupancy goes up above about 85% there can be a rise in the risk of cross infection between patients, and it is less likely that an appropriate bed will be available for acute patients as they come in.

"This latter will lead to increased waits for an appropriate bed or being admitted to an inappropriate ward, for example with knock-on effects whereby another patient might have elective surgery postponed.

"While this policy might make sense if you are looking for short-term cuts, it can have serious implications for quality and cost of care in the longer term.

"We need to carefully monitor the number of beds available and ensure that we are putting patients first when it comes to deciding how many beds are available in the NHS."

A spokesman for NHS England said: "It is important that patients receive the right care, in the right place, at the right time.

"The hospital is not a home and we know that, when given the choice, patients often prefer to receive care as close to their home as possible.

"It is for local NHS leaders to determine the best mix of care for the populations they serve - they will rightly consider community and home care as well as hospital beds."

Commenting on the BMA motion, Mike Adamson, chief executive at the British Red Cross, said: "Increasing more beds alone will not help solve this problem. This country is facing a social care crisis.

"Without the proper care systems in place to return people home, thousands of patients will continue to be stuck in limbo.

"No one chooses to be stuck on a hospital bed when they could be in their own homes, rebuilding their lives.

The Government has already set aside funds to be invested in health and social care. However, the bulk of this money won't be available for another two years.

"These funds are needed now - to support people who are currently stranded in hospital due to the gap in care provision and to help prevent thousands from being admitted to hospital in the first place."

Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: "At the very heart of the NHS is the ability to treat patients in a professional, caring and dignified manner. We can't do this if we are unable to provide patients with hospital beds. It is therefore of great concern to us to learn that there are fewer beds in English hospitals compared to other countries.

"Adequate funding is hugely important to the survival of the NHS. A lack of finances has inevitably resulted in withdrawal of services and bed shortages. This impacts on the NHS's ability to provide good-quality dignified patient care. Having a reduced number of available hospital beds results in long waiting lists, which in turn puts pressure on community services, as well as already overstretched A&E departments.

"Clearly there is an urgent need to address the funding issues that plague our NHS, as it is ultimately patients who end up suffering due to lack of proper investment."

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