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NHS: Bed Capacity

Volume 753: debated on Thursday 20 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to prevent hospital patients being moved in the middle of the night to relieve pressure on beds.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and refer noble Lords to my health interests.

My Lords, moving patients between wards overnight should happen only for good clinical reasons, because it can be a distressing experience for them and their families. We have asked NHS England’s medical director, Sir Bruce Keogh, to write to all hospital trusts requesting that they minimise transfers that are not aimed at improving patient care. As the Government’s response to the Francis inquiry highlighted, listening to and learning from patients to improve care is a top government priority.

My Lords, it is all very well the Minister’s telling the NHS not to do it any more, but does he agree that the real problem here is the pressure on hospital services, particularly on A&E services, which then leads to a desperate search for beds, which then causes patients to be moved in the night time, as this survey has reported? Do Ministers have a response to the more general issue of the acute pressures on our acute hospitals at the moment?

My Lords, many hospitals have been under pressure, particularly during winter, as they always are. It is telling that if one looks at the tell-tale signs of pressure, such as bed occupancy, the rates have remained stable for a number of years. In fact we have more clinical staff on the front line, particularly in A&E, than we had a few years ago. There is no doubt that there are times when hospitals feel acutely under pressure. However, despite rising demand, average waits for assessment in A&E are around 30 minutes at the moment, compared with over 70 minutes in 2009-10.

My Lords, would the Minister use his good offices to reinforce again with the National Health Service that all unplanned moves that are not determined by clinical need, be it during the day or at night, have the potential to cause disorientation to patients and considerable distress to their relatives?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. That is why my ministerial colleague, Dr Poulter, has written to Sir Bruce Keogh. This issue lies at the heart of the NHS constitution: the patient’s dignity and shaping care around the needs and preferences of patients is absolutely at the centre of the constitution. This is why it is entirely appropriate for Ministers to make their views known and for Sir Bruce to ensure that all hospitals are aware of this principle.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is possible to discharge patients from hospital in the evening safely and that there are some patients for whom that is the best clinical option, but that hospitals are not good at ensuring that frail older people are discharged at the best time when they live on their own? Could he include that in the review carried out by NHS England?

My noble friend is quite right. As she knows, there are far too many frail elderly people who end up in hospital in the first place. We must get better at the discharge arrangements for them and not keep them in hospital too long. This is the focus of much of the work going on in the department and NHS England at present concerning vulnerable older people. We will announce a comprehensive plan around this later in the year.

My Lords, apart from distressing patients, is not moving them around bad for infection control, particularly if the beds are not properly cleaned?

Yes, my Lords. As ever, the noble Baroness makes an extremely good point. It is heartening that infection rates have come dramatically down in hospitals over the past few years, but we can never be complacent and it is important that when a patient is moved the infection question is always considered.

My Lords, is it not the case that we have the lowest number of beds per head of population of any OECD country, bed occupancy rates of approaching 90%—a dangerously high level—and, despite all that, the shortest lengths of stay of any European country? Does the noble Earl agree that the idea of closing wards or hospitals can only worsen the situation, unless, of course, we are able to build up the community services before we do any of that?

I agree with the principle that the noble Lord has articulated. Certainly, commissioners and providers of care should reduce beds only where it is clinically safe and appropriate to do so. The NHS is very experienced at flexing the number of beds it has available; it does this every year and every winter. As a principle, I would agree with the noble Lord but I come back to the point that bed occupancy rates have, in fact, remained stable over the past 10 years, fluctuating between 84% and 88% on average, and increasing slightly over the winter period.

My Lords, further to the question from my noble friend Lady Barker, is it mandatory for the NHS to advise next of kin before discharging frail patients?

I am not aware that it is mandatory. It is certainly good practice for hospitals to inform families, just as they should inform patients. Every decision taken about the patient should be explained to that person.

My Lords, can I come back to the point raised by my noble friend? The noble Earl will know that Monitor is requiring foundation trusts to make five-year plans ahead. My understanding is that almost all such plans made by acute trusts are predicated on reducing bed capacity in order to keep within the budgets that they are likely to have over that period. Can he assure me that as those bed numbers are reduced, community care and social care provision will increase in order to enable patients to be discharged appropriately?

It is for that very reason that we are setting up the Better Care Fund as from April 2015, so that health and social care are more joined up, people are kept out of hospital and we can therefore safely reduce the number of beds. We have to take an all-systems approach to this; it is no good looking at one part of the system—health and social care have to be looked at together.