Patients are being routinely left on trolleys for hours and treated in corridors and other inappropriate areas, the Royal College of Nursing has warned in the wake of new survey results.
More than a fifth of nurses surveyed said situations where patients received care in corridors or areas not designated for care occurred at least once a day.
The situation was even worse in accident and emergency settings, with 51% of A&E nurses reporting that patients received care in corridors or other inappropriate areas on a daily basis.
Overall, 79% said patient safety was being compromised by patients being kept in such areas.
Almost half of respondents also said they had encountered patients being cared for, or asked to wait for care, on trolleys for long periods in the last six months. Trolley waits averaged six hours and 23 minutes.
The findings from the survey of around 1,250 acute sector nurses and healthcare assistants “raise questions about capacity in some hospitals”, the RCN said. It is calling on trusts to halt bed closures until they can demonstrate that alternative services in the community are up and running.
The survey results appear to demonstrate a return to the capacity problems of the 1990s when headlines about patients being left on trolleys were commonplace.
RCN chief executive and general secretary Peter Carter said: “Two years ago we warned that the need to make £20bn in efficiency savings in England alone would risk sending the NHS back to the days of treating patients in corridors or areas not designed for care. Sadly, it looks like those days have now returned.
“Treating patients on corridors or areas not designed for care is a high risk strategy, which can have a serious impact on patient care. Patients need to be able to interact with staff, to be able to reach call bells and to know they are visible.
“They also need regular monitoring and easy access to equipment if their condition deteriorates. Finally, patients need to have their privacy and dignity protected.”
However, the College of Emergency Medicine released guidance last month stating that patients should be moved to trolleys in ward corridors to wait for a bed, rather than wait in overcrowded A&E departments. It said that although it was controversial it was the safest way of dealing with hospital capacity problems (news, page 4, 24 April).
The survey forms part of the RCN’s Frontline First campaign, which was launched in November 2010 and is focused on trying to prevent the loss of NHS workforce capacity.
The college said latest monitoring data from the campaign suggested 26,300 posts had gone in the two years to April with a further 34,700 at risk over the next three years.
In response to the survey, health minister Simon Burns said: “There is no excuse for patients to be left waiting on trolleys. The NHS has beds free and available, and hospitals should be supporting their nurses to ensure that patients are admitted to them quickly. We will not hesitate to take action where we find hospitals failing to do so.
“With an ageing population, we need to make sure we care for people better outside hospital so that they do not need to go in for treatment. This will help reduce pressure on beds and nurses working in hospitals.
“Over the last year, we have seen the number of emergency admissions to hospital go down for the first time in years, but we need to maintain this improvement so that people stay healthier for longer and that nurses have more time to care for patients in hospital.”
Dean Royles, director of the NHS Employers organisation, which represents trusts, added: “Hospitals and services will have varying demands from area to area and service to service, and NHS employers fully recognise the importance of having the right staffing levels to provide the safest care.
“Organisations need to plan care in a way that is best for the patient. We encourage NHS employers to put the ward sister or charge nurse in the driving seat to plan the right staffing levels and ensure patients get the safest care.”