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NHS: Hospital Beds

Volume 741: debated on Thursday 6 December 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the analysis of hospital bed availability in the report Dr Foster’s 2012 Hospital Guide.

My Lords, Department of Health data show that the average bed occupancy rate for all beds open overnight has remained stable, at between 84% and 87% since 2000. Rather than being a cause of concern, this indicates that hospitals are making efficient use of beds. NHS hospitals need to manage beds effectively in order to cope with peaks in demand. We expect to see higher occupancy rates in winter, when these demands are at their highest.

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for his response and his endurance, I believe that we owe a debt of gratitude to Dr Foster for the report, which shows so clearly how severe the stress is that our hospitals are suffering under. With bed occupancies of 95% to 100% for much of the year for many of the hospitals, there are too often no beds available, staff are rushed off their feet, patients are not cared for properly, infection rates rise and mistakes occur. Given that almost one-third of the patients now in hospital do not need to be there and would be better off cared for in the community, and given that the community services cannot provide that care because they are so underfunded, where are we to get the money from? Simply saying that we can close a hospital or two and slide the money across from a cash-strapped NHS before those services are available will just exacerbate the problem. Would it not be better to use those end-of-year surpluses that we have been hearing about instead of returning them to the Treasury?

My Lords, as I mentioned earlier, NHS underspends are not lost to the NHS—they can be carried forward from year to year. But on his central point, I should make it clear that we are struggling to reconcile the Dr Foster bed occupancy figures with those that we have. Dr Foster has stated that bed occupancy is at a dangerous level, at over 90% for 48 weeks of the year. We are looking closely at that analysis and methodology, but we cannot agree with those conclusions at the moment, given that the department monitors the position on a daily basis during the winter and on a quarterly basis at other times. However, I agree with the noble Lord that there are too many people in hospital. We need to ensure that we move more care into the community. I do not see this as insuperable within the current budgetary expenditure limits.

My Lords, I want to ask about community midwifery services and avoiding bed use by that means. Is the Minister aware of the great value to children in terms of outcomes of promoting a good relationship between midwives and parents, increasing the rate of breast-feeding and reducing episiotomies? In his reconfiguration, when he is thinking about not using so many bed spaces, will he recognise the value of local community midwifery services?

Yes, my Lords. That is the precise reason why there are currently 5,000 midwives in training, which is a record number. The noble Earl is absolutely right to identify the midwifery service as key to enabling children to get a healthy start in life and parents to ensure that children get into good eating and exercise habits.

My Lords, the Dr Foster report identifies those hospitals which have a high level of inappropriate referrals of older people. Will the department do further research in those areas to see whether there is a correlation between out-of-hours GP services, and the work that they do, and a high level of inappropriate referrals of older people to acute hospitals?

My Lords, it is questions of that kind that we expect the clinical commissioning groups to examine because they will become responsible for out-of-hours primary care. Therefore, it is incumbent on them to ensure that that service not only is a good one but does not lead to unwanted consequences in terms of unplanned admissions to hospital.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that his usual clarity has deserted him somewhat today as he has indicated that money which is underspent is returned to the Treasury but on the other hand he has said that it is not lost to the National Health Service? Does he agree that this gives a completely new meaning to double-entry bookkeeping?

I shall be happy to write to the noble Lord to explain why my answers have been absolutely correct and the situation that I have described is nothing new. However, we are in a new situation in the sense that it appears that the supplementary questions can be extended at will over any other Question on the Order Paper, but I am happy to take questions from the noble Lord at any time.

Given the report’s figure that 6% of beds are occupied by patients who are readmitted within a week, costing almost £8 million per annum, what guidance is the department giving to clinical commissioning groups to ensure that support is available in the community so that patients discharged from hospital with multiple comorbidities and frailty do not tumble back into the admissions system?

The noble Baroness has identified a very important issue. The causes of emergency readmissions are, of course, several. Some of them are not the fault of the provider but some are. Therefore, we have given an instruction to commissioners to build into the contracts that they have with those providing services that penalties may be applied to the provider should emergency readmissions occur which are the fault of the provider. I would be happy to write to the noble Baroness with further details.