Is the NHS on verge of a '˜winter of woe?'
Hospital bosses in Lancashire have warned patients to expect delays during busy spells over the winter.
The message comes as leading doctors warned of a “winter of woe” for the NHS, as a combination of funding cuts in health and social care plus winter flu strains the system.
An increasing number of hospital beds are tied up with ‘bed blocking’ - when medically fit patients cannot be discharged because of a lack of social care – which impacts on waiting times in A&E.
Suzanne Hargreaves, Operations Director at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Hospitals across the country have been busy throughout the year and we can expect demand for care to increase in the coming months.
“Our staff are already working hard to make sure we see and treat patients who need urgent care promptly, and that people receive their planned procedures on time.
“While we put additional resources in place in readiness for the winter period, it is likely that patients will experience some delays during exceptionally busy spells.
“Families can support us to make sure we can admit and treat patients with urgent care needs, by working with us to ensure we can discharge people when they no longer need specialist hospital services.
“We also urge people to stay well this winter by getting their flu jab, taking medicines as prescribed, keeping warm, and making sure repeat prescriptions are organised.”
High levels of winter flu in New Zealand and Australia over the summer – winter in the southern hemisphere – had lead doctors to predict that a similar trend could be hitting the UK this winter.
And unusually high levels of flu could prove the final straw for an over-stretched system.
Prof Derek Alderson, the president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said hospitals’ ability to cope with the coming winter was at risk because so many beds were tied up with bed blockers.
He said: “Hospitals and local authorities must look carefully at what they can do to speed up the transfer of patients between different types of care.
“NHS leaders have already warned of a bad flu season this winter. Unless the backlog of delayed discharges begins to clear before then, it is hard to see how the NHS will cope with increased demand.
“NHS staff are doing the best they can with the resource they’ve been given and the unabating pressure they’ve tackled this year means morale remains low.
“Unless patients are moved more quickly to community care and planned bed capacity is better protected, the NHS will face a winter of woe, with patients feeling the brunt of this.”
NHS Improvement (NHSI), the health service regulator, said more needed to be done to ensure hospitals were able to provide safe care this winter.
But an NHSI spokesperson admitted: “The operating environment is more challenging than last year, with an increase in admissions and delays to discharge.
“We are therefore working through a local process to ensure that there are enough beds in the system to cope with surges in demand, or an outbreak in flu.”
Last year level of flu were low, but Royal Preston Hospital still saw long delays at A&E, as Chorley’s A&E was closed for the first half of the winter, partially reopening in January this year.
Ambulance crews reported long delays in handing over patients to A&E staff, and up to nine ambulances were pictured queuing outside the department.