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Quarter of South East Hospital Beds Taken Up by Patients Well Enough to Leave

Published on: 10 Apr, 2022
Updated on: 14 Apr, 2022

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

A quarter of hospital beds in the South East were last week being taken up by patients well enough to leave causing long handover delays, the local ambulance service chief has said.

Paramedics are losing hours every day sitting in queues outside hospitals while hundreds of beds are being occupied by people who longer need them.

Philip Astle

At last week’s board meeting of South East Coast Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SECAmb), chief executive Philip Astle said: “Systems remain really under pressure.

“On Wednesday across the South East, 25 per cent of our hospital beds have got patients who are fit for discharge, which is huge.

“And that’s what leads inevitably to our inability to get patients in the front door, which increasingly is unsafe.”

NHS England rules state that all handovers of patients between ambulances and the emergency department must take place within 15 minutes and none more than 30.

In Surrey last Wednesday, NHS England and NHS Improvement data show a delay of at least 30 minutes in 16 per cent of ambulances arriving at hospitals. And four per cent of all arrivals were delayed by over an hour.

Emma Williams, executive director of operations at SECAmb, said: “Those extremely long waits are very challenging for us because obviously we have an unmet need within the community every time we’re holding vehicles at hospitals.

“Ambulances are designed to move people from A to B; they are not designed to keep people within them for prolonged lengths of time.”

At the Royal Surrey, ambulance queues and hospital bed waits are consistently below the national average while the A&E waits are consistently above. BBC Graphic

Data from the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives show that nationally, there was a 65 per cent increase in the number of hours lost to these delays in January this year compared to the same period last year.

There are however fewer delays in the South East than anywhere else in the country.

Mr Astle added: “The South East, I’m delighted to say, is the lowest area affected by hospital handover delays – but we don’t sit easy, we need to keep pushing to get those down to acceptable levels.”

The situation fluctuates day to day and has improved in the South East since last Wednesday. On Sunday, the latest available data, the proportion delayed more than 30 minutes had dropped to four per cent, with none delayed over an hour.

On the Wednesday 270 patients remained in Surrey hospitals who “no longer met the criteria to reside”, and this was only two fewer on the Sunday when hospital handovers were quicker, so there are other factors contributing to delays.

Patients not being discharged when medically fit can be waiting on a variety of services, such as care home beds, care in the community or assessments for care, or rehabilitation beds in community hospitals.

Both the clinical commissioning group and the council say they are working collaboratively to increase the number of people able to “leave hospital as soon as they are ready, with the right support”.

A Surrey Heartlands spokesperson said the 25 per cent figure reported by the chief of SECAmb, which covers Kent and Sussex as well as Surrey, was lower in Surrey. She said the health and care system was “working very hard to reduce the number of ambulance handover delays in our hospitals and recognise the additional pressure this puts on ambulance colleagues”.

As well as the overall demand for packages of care, she said current pressures include high levels of hospital admissions, including a significant number with Covid,  and staff sickness within hospital and community teams.

Surrey hospital Covid related admissions for the week ending Mar 27.

A spokesperson for Surrey County Council, responsible for social care, agreed “higher than usual levels of staff illness”, as well as higher demand due to Covid, were partly to blame and the council is trying to recruit and retain staff.

He said: “We’re calling for measures such as more support with growing the social care workforce through training opportunities, a defined career path and higher wages in the short-term – these staff are the heart of the social care sector and we need to ensure we have all the tools to encourage people to join and remain part of this workforce.

Our focus is the wellbeing and safety of residents and discharging them to settings that are best for their needs, recovery and future independence.

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