Hospitals are “dangerously close to full”, Labour has warned after it emerged that the number of hospital beds available to patients in England has shrunk by almost 6% since the coalition government took office.
Between April and June 2010, there were 110,568 general and acute beds in hospitals across England, but the figure declined to 104,011 between October to December 2012, the Daily Mail reported.
Hospital beds should not be cut while patients are enduring “trolley waits” of more than 12 hours, shadow health minister Jamie Reed MP said.
Since the start of the year, 190 emergency patients have waited for 12 hours or more for a hospital bed to become free so they can be admitted.
“Hospitals are already dangerously close to full,” said Mr Reed.
“Older people, who are well enough to be discharged, are trapped in hospital because councils no longer have the money to support them at home.
“At bursting hospitals we’re seeing more and more patients left on trolleys in corridors waiting for a free bed - some for more than 12 hours. Ministers must not axe more beds whilst this remains the case.”
But health officials said that the bed occupancy rate has remained stable throughout the time period, with 84% to 87% of beds occupied.
More patients are being treated in the community and there is an increase in the number of people who are being treated as day patients, health minister Lord Howe said.
He said: “The reduction in bed numbers reflects more people being treated in the community and improvements in surgery which mean more people are treated as day cases and don’t have to stay overnight in hospital.
“The proportion of beds occupied in the NHS is also broadly stable and has been since 2010, at between 84 and 87%.
“NHS England is freeing up cash to help ease the immediate pressures on A&E but long term, we need to look at how the NHS works as a whole, how it works with other areas such as social care and how it deals with an ageing population and more people with long term conditions. That is what we are doing.”
Royal College of Physicians president Sir Richard Thompson added: “Hospitals have coped with this [fall in beds] by reducing the average length of stay for patients. However, the fall has flattened and in the past years it has started to rise, particularly for elderly patients.
“We must hope that more can be done to prevent some of these acute hospital admissions, further shorten length of stay, and ensure the smooth transfer of care when discharging patients from hospital.”
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