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Pre-planned operations ‘should be cancelled for two months each year’

Postponing all elective activity throughout January and February may be one solution to the NHS’s winter pressures, the Society of Acute Medicine said.

Scrapping all pre-planned procedures for two months of the year may be one radical solution to the NHS’s winter pressure problems, the Society of Acute Medicine has said.

In an interview with the Press Association, Dr Nick Scriven, president of the society, which represents doctors who specialise in the care of adults who are admitted to hospital as an emergency, said some doctors have called on the health service to consider stopping elective activity throughout January and February.

Hospitals in England were told to delay elective operations and routine outpatient appointments throughout January this year due to severe winter pressures.

But they were advised that urgent cases and cancer care should still proceed as planned.

Dr Scriven questioned whether postponing elective procedures should become a routine measure to help ease pressure on hospitals.

This winter hospitals were forced to open previously-closed “mothball” wards and turn investigations areas into makeshift wards.

Dr Scriven said that he had even heard of one hospital which had closed a birthing unit for a few days to make space for medical patients in need of inpatient beds.

He said that the NHS had “just coped” over winter but this was based on the goodwill of staff.

People in power have to sit up and take notice that this isn’t going to get better Dr Nick Scriven

When asked what the solution should be, he said: “People in power have to sit up and take notice that this isn’t going to get better and unless something radical is done it is going to get worse.

“There are the things that people always talk about, like this year the NHS suggested that people should suspend elective activity for a month, should that be a routine thing?

“To free up the extra ward in every hospital in January and February.

“That would be one radical thing.”

Meanwhile, no more acute beds should be closed, he added.

The comments come after a document published on the House of Commons Library highlighted the significant pressures on the health service in England over winter.

Hospitals almost full to capacity, long waits for patients and ambulance delays were featured in the document.

The new national medical director for NHS England acknowledged that pressures on the health service “loomed particularly large” this winter.

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph, Professor Stephen Powis highlighted that the “main business” of the NHS is helping patients with multiple and long-term conditions.

He said the health service needs a system which supports a patient’s “complete needs” rather than treating each ailment in isolation.

Patients need to be supported by “professionals who act as one team and work for organisations that behave as one system”, he said, but this has been “made difficult by historic administrative and cultural fractures”.

Prof Powis added: “Opportunities to limit ill-health are missed, patients get pushed from pillar to post, staff are frustrated when trying to ‘do the right thing’, hospitals pick up the pieces – and pressures build.

“Those pressures, which loomed particularly large this winter, are symptomatic not only of constrained funding but also of a system designed for a different era.

“As the NHS’s 70th anniversary approaches, it is time to fix the cracks rather than paper over them.”

After highlighting a system that works well to prevent elderly patients from getting “trapped” in hospitals, Prof Powis said elderly patients who are admitted to hospital can age the equivalent of 10 years in 10 days.

He welcomed the Prime Minister’s commitment for a long-term plan for the NHS, adding: “There are half a million more people aged over 75 than in 2010 – and there will be two million more in 10 years’ time.

“They are also spending more years in ill-health. Between 2015 and 2035, the number of older people with four or more diseases will double and a third of these will have mental ill-health.”

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