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NHS bed occupancy rates now at worst ever, new figures show

24 May 2018

Overnight bed occupancy rates in NHS hospitals between January-March this year were the worst ever recorded, as they reached 92.6%, new figures show. This exceeded the 85% bed occupancy level which is recommended to maintain patient safety standards - and was a 1.2% increase on the same period last year, when overnight bed occupancy rates in general and acute hospital wards were 91.4%. 

During the same three month period, a total of 25,475 operations were cancelled at the last minute, causing distress for patients who were expecting to have surgery. This was the highest number of last minute cancelled operations since quarterly records began in 1994. It was due to the extreme pressure hospitals were under from a high number of emergency admissions, and a lack of bed capacity for patients awaiting surgery. Delays in discharging older patients, due to shortages in social care support, also had a knock-on effect on bed capacity this winter as frail patients had to stay longer in hospital.

Health experts advise hospitals to operate with bed-occupancy rates below 85% because there is evidence that this helps to reduce the risk of infections and enables hospitals to respond more efficiently to outbreaks of flu and winter vomiting bugs, such as the norovirus.

Mr Ian Eardley, Vice President of the Royal College of Surgeons and a Consultant Urologist, said: “These figures are very worrying but they will come as no surprise to frontline staff who struggled to provide care for their patients because of increasing demands and a shortage of hospital beds this winter.

“We know that if hospitals routinely exceed bed occupancy rates of over 85%, it can lead to increased infections rates for patients and make it more difficult for hospitals to contain flu outbreaks or vomiting bugs. 

“An exceptionally high number of operations were also cancelled at the last minute between January and March this year. It goes without saying that cancelling a patient’s operation at the last moment is very distressing for them and their family and it can cause an individual’s condition to deteriorate.

“The fact remains that none of what the NHS experienced this year was new. The Government’s forthcoming 10 year plan for the NHS must include a commitment to increasing bed capacity and transforming the way we provide care for older patients, so they can be treated closer to their homes.

“A recent European Commission report found that the UK had the third lowest number of hospital beds in the EU at 2.6 per 1,000 in 2015, compared to the EU average of 5.1.”


Notes to editors

The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a professional membership organisation and registered charity, which exists to advance surgical standards and improve patient care.

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