Doctors running 68 A&E departments tell PM patients are dying prematurely because staff are too busy to treat them
Patients are dying in hospital corridors during the ongoing winter crisis because the NHS is so underfunded and short-staffed that it cannot cope, senior doctors have warned Theresa May.
A&E units are under such intense strain that patients are at intolerable risk of being harmed by receiving poor care, specialists in emergency medicine from 68 hospitals have told the prime minister in a letter of unprecedented alarm.
In recent weeks some hospitals have become so overloaded that they have been looking after as many as 120 patients a day in corridors, with some dying prematurely as a result, the letter says.
The doctors, consultants who work in or run A&E units in England and Wales, have written to May to highlight the very serious concerns we have for the safety of our patients. This current level of safety compromise is at times intolerable, despite the best efforts of staff.
Conditions in many A&E units are so appalling that they could kill patients, claim the signatories, who work at both major teaching hospitals and smaller district general hospitals. They include Frimley health trust in Surrey, which May visited last week in an attempt to reassure the public that the NHS was coping well this winter.
As you will know a number of scientific publications have shown that crowded emergency departments are dangerous for patients. The longer that the patients stay in [the] emergency department after their treatment has been completed, the greater is their morbidity and associated morbidity, they write.
Their intervention came as new NHS figures showed that the percentage of patients being treated within four hours at hospital-based A&E units in England fell last month to its lowest-ever level 77.3%. The performance of all types of settings offering A&E-type care taken together, including walk-in centres and urgent care centres, was better but still the joint worst ever at 85.1% far below the politically important target of 95%.
Only three of the NHSs 137 acute trusts hit the 95% target, while 32 were at or below 70%. Blackpool teaching hospitals trust had by far the lowest performance, at 40.1%. The figures reinforced the warning to ministers on Thursday from NHS Providers that it would be impossible to deliver on their pledge that all hospitals would be achieving 95% by March.
Our emergency departments are not just under pressure, but in a state of emergency, said Dr Taj Hassan, the president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, which represents A&E doctors.
The NHS undertook unprecedented planning to help services cope with the annual spike in demand in December and January. Despite that, hospitals had a record number of emergency admissions last month 520,163, a 4.5% rise on the numbers admitted in December 2016.
A drive to free up 2,000-3,000 beds by 1 September, to avoid hospitals becoming dangerously full, appears to have failed. Separate NHS figures for last week show that 19 trusts were on 99% or 100% bed occupancy between 1 and 7 January. Three were completely full.
Average bed occupancy shot up last week to 95%, far higher than the 85% that experts say, and the NHS accepts, hospitals need to maintain in order to stop patients getting hospital-acquired infections such as MRSA or Clostridium difficile, or experiencing poor care.
Bed occupancy as high as 95% is a danger to patient safety, with around 7,000 fewer beds open than in the same period last year, said Hassan.
Drawing on their own experiences in recent weeks ,the doctors who signed the letter painted a stark picture of conditions inside A&E units. Common situations include over 50 patients at a time waiting beds in the emergency department [and] patients sleeping in clinics as makeshift wards.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said in response to the letter: There has been a 68.7% increase in the number of A&E consultants since 2010, and the NHS was given top priority in the recent budget with an extra 2.8bn allocated over the next two years.
But we know there is a great deal of pressure in A&E departments, and we are grateful to all NHS staff for their incredible work in challenging circumstances. Thats why we recently announced the largest single increase in doctor training places in the history of the NHS a 25% expansion.
May stressed on Thursday that flu was a key factor in the intense strain that NHS services were facing. We have seen the extra pressures that the NHS has come under this year. One of the issues that determines the extent of that pressure is flu and we have seen in recent days an increase in the number of people presenting at A&E from flu, she said.
Hours after she spoke, new figures from Public Health England confirmed that flu was putting a sharply increased burden on GP surgeries as well as hospitals.
Last week 758 peple around the UK were hospialised because of flu, up from 421 the week before. Of those, 240 were so sick they had to be admitted to an intensive care or a high dependency unit, up from 114. The number of people consulting a GP with flu-like symptoms almost doubled.
A further 27 people died of flu-related symptoms last week, three more than the week before, taking the toll of deaths this winter to 85.