The Guardian February 16, 2000


Britain:
Hospital bed shortage costs lives

by Daphne Liddle

Figures leaked to the London Evening Standard have revealed that 26 
patients died in December in the London area as doctors tried desperately 
to find intensive care beds. The figures, from the Emergency Beds Service, 
cover only one month and only one part of the country.

The indications are that most of the rest of the country faced a similar 
plight and the figures for January are likely to be worse because the 
height of the 'flu crisis came in that month.

Geoff Martin of the campaigning group London Health Emergency said: "This 
is hard evidence that everyone who needs an intensive care bed in London is 
not getting one  which for some people is a death sentence.

"All of these people were seriously ill and a number would have died 
anyway, but it certainly cannot help that people are being ferried around 
London and further when their life is on a knife edge."

Outside London there are just as many horror stories. For example, one 
woman was airlifted 50 miles [80km] from the Royal Sussex Hospital in 
Brighton to the Isle of Wight in a gale on Christmas eve.

And a new survey just published shows that elderly people with serious 
conditions, including heart attacks and breathing problems are being kept 
waiting longer than a day for a hospital bed.

One woman aged 71 had to wait 40 hours on a trolley for admission at 
Northwick Park Hospital. Another woman in the same department aged 69 and 
suffering from a heart complaint waited 30 hours on a trolley.

In the King George Hospital in Ilford, six patients with very serious 
conditions had each been kept waiting for over 20 hours.

Christine Hancock, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, 
described this as a "national scandal".

Donna Covey, director of the Association of Community Health Councils, 
said: "These shocking and distressing figures show that people are right to 
be alarmed about the state of the health service."

The King's Fund, an influential pressure group that once advised former 
Tory Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley that London did not really need 
most of its hospitals, is now saying the NHS should concentrate only on 
those who are likely to die from their illnesses or conditions.

It has called on the Government to abandon hospital waiting lists, sending 
patients back to their family doctors, and admit that it cannot fund all 
non-urgent or "elective" care.

This would affect more than a million on waiting lists. Many are suffering 
from painful and disabling conditions that prevent them from working or 
from leading normal lives.

Providing support for them while they wait often for years or more, is 
costing the country millions and costing the patients a quality of life 
that cannot be assessed in financial terms.

This is outrageous in a wealthy country. Some people now incapacitated by 
curable conditions, who have relatives in India, are travelling there for 
treatment because waiting lists are shorter and private treatment less 
expensive.

The Department of Health has announced that it will reintroduce recovery 
wards for elderly patients to be nursed after surgery, recognising at last 
that they cannot just be sent home immediately after surgery and be 
expected to cope.

This is aimed to free beds in acute wards for emergency cases but it 
implies an increase in the total number of hospital beds. This is very 
welcome but may not be easy to achieve with the increasing NHS reliance on 
Private Finance Initiative hospitals.

These are rented from the private sector  which determines the number of 
beds in them.

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New Worker

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