Elderly patients are increasingly being kept in hospital beds because there is no one to support them at home, or there are no places available in residential homes, figures indicate. The number of hospital bed days lost to so-called ‘bed blockers’ across NHS hospitals in England has risen by 11 per cent in the past year, official figures show.
The rise comes after years of success in tackling the problem, and illustrates growing pressures on the NHS and social services.
According to Department of Health statistics, the number of hospital bed days lost to bed blockers rose from 115,648 during September and October 2010, to 128,517 in the same two month period this year.
That comes after a sustained period of falls between 2003 and 2009, as a result of concerted ministerial action to tackle the problem.
With the average cost of providing a hospital bed for a day estimated at £255, that means the daily NHS bill for bed blockers has risen from £483,000 to £537,000.
Aside from this economic cost, it also means hospitals cannot admit new patients as quickly, which can delay waiting times for pre-planned operations.
The statistics confirm what many have been fearing for months: that reductions in local authority social care budgets would quickly lead to clogged up hospital wards.
In February Bupa warned that “chronic under-funding” of care home places would lead to an “intolerable” bed-blocking crisis in the long term, costing the NHS millions of pounds a day.
Oliver Thomas, director of UK care homes for Bupa, said last night: “If you slow down the number of people placed in residential care, because you are trying to manage your budgets better, then inevitably people will stay longer in the acute sector.”
Others described the latest figures as a “warning” of worse to come and a “pinch point”.
Jo Webber, of the NHS Confederation, which represents health service authorities, said: “This is a worrying sign of the pressure which is building in the system. Like waiting times, it is a pinch point.”
Last month The Daily Telegraph reported that government funding for nursing homes and home help for pensioners had been cut by almost a fifth, with some councils cutting spending by up to 30 per cent.
At the same time many hospitals are cutting hospital bed numbers, by up to 10 per cent, in part to meet tough efficiency saving targets.
Dr Ian Donald, of the British Geriatrics Society, said: “The trouble is hospitals operate on such tight margins. Even small delays can cause problems.”
The term ‘bed blocker’ tends to imply the patient is the cause of the problem, but Dr Donald emphasised that was not the case.
“Delayed discharges are not just statistics, but individual patients who are frail and vulnerable. “To them and their families it can feel like they are stuck and lost in the system,” he said.
The new figures follow the introduction in August 2010 of a new monthly reporting system for counting ‘delayed discharges’ – incidents when an otherwise healthy patient is kept in due to lack of community care facilities – brought in due to concerns over quality of data.