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NHS Bed Numbers

A recent study by The Kings Fund has highlighted even further worrying trends in NHS bed numbers. The study found that the total number of NHS hospital beds in England has more than halved over the past 30 years, from around 299,000 to 142,000, while the number of patients treated has increased significantly.

This is reflected in most other advanced health care systems that have also reduced bed numbers in recent years. However, the UK currently has fewer acute beds relative to its population than almost any other comparable health system.

There are positives in the news of falling bed numbers. One of the reasons is medical innovation, including an increase in day-case surgery, which has had an impact by reducing the time that many patients spend in hospital. Such innovation has helped to reduce the number of patients in hospital unnecessarily.

However, there are signs of a growing shortage of beds. In 2016/17, overnight general and acute bed occupancy averaged 90.3 per cent, and regularly exceeded 95 per cent in winter. There have already been worrying reports about the NHS’ ability to cope this winter.

There are substantial variations in average length of stay for some procedures across different hospitals. Many patients experience delays in the discharge process meaning they spend time in hospital when they are no longer benefiting from being there. In July this year, more than 5,860 beds were occupied by patients whose discharge was delayed. Progress in these areas would help to make more productive use of existing hospital beds.

The King’s Fund report on hospital bed numbers is clear evidence that capacity in the NHS has been exceeded. This should be a warning sign for the future. The age of the UK population is rising and there is a rising demand for hospital care with increases in A&E attendances, emergency admissions, and elective admissions. The demand for hospital admission means that the number of hospital beds cannot be reduced indefinitely.

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