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Further hospital bed cuts ‘unachievable’ warns think tank


28 September 2017

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The total number of NHS hospital beds in England has more than halved in the last 30 years, according to a new report from The King’s Fund.

The report says that plans to cut hospital beds further are therefore ‘undesirable and unachievable’.

The analysis found that the total number of NHS hospital beds in England has fallen from around 299,000 to 142,000, as more patients with mental illness and learning disabilities are cared for in the community and medical advances have reduced the time many patients spend in hospital.

The total number of NHS hospital beds in England has more than halved in the last 30 years, according to a new report from The King’s Fund.

The report says that plans to cut hospital beds further are therefore ‘undesirable and unachievable’.

The analysis found that the total number of NHS hospital beds in England has fallen from around 299,000 to 142,000, as more patients with mental illness and learning disabilities are cared for in the community and medical advances have reduced the time many patients spend in hospital.

Although the report finds that most advanced nations have reduced hospital bed numbers in recent years, the report shows that the NHS now has fewer acute hospital beds per person than almost any other comparable health system. 

As the NHS braces itself for a difficult winter, the analysis highlights a growing shortage of beds as hospitals struggle to cope with increasing numbers of patients with more complex conditions.

In 2016/17, overnight occupancy in acute hospitals averaged over 90% and regularly exceeded 95% during the winter, well above the level widely thought to be safe. 

Despite clear evidence that hospitals are overstretched, some STPs have put forward significant cuts in hospital beds, in some cases proposing faster reductions than the national trend in recent years.

The authors of the report conclude that the scale of bed reductions proposed in these areas is unrealistic. 

However, the report suggests that there are still some opportunities to make better use of existing beds, especially by focusing on older patients who stay in hospital for long periods of time.

Helen McKenna, senior policy adviser at The King’s Fund, said: ‘There are opportunities to make better use of existing beds and initiatives to capitalise on these should continue.

‘But with many hospitals already stretched to breaking point, reductions on the scale we know have been proposed in some areas are neither desirable not achievable.’

Saffron Cordery, the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, said: ‘Plans for further bed cuts are a particular concern when, as the King’s Fund points out, there is clear evidence that NHS trusts are overstretched.

‘And while there is some evidence that new approaches to integrate care for patients in the vanguard programme may ease growing pressure on hospitals, these are often small in scale and taking time to bed in.

‘One of the key lessons from last winter was the importance of avoiding unsafe levels of bed occupancy. It is vital that plans for the future reflect the reality of increasing demand from a growing and ageing population.’

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