Health leaders plead with public to turn to pharmacists to ease strain on crowded hospitals
Photo: Christopher Jones/The Telegraph
7:00AM GMT 14 Nov 2014
The public is being urged to turn to pharmacies instead of hospitals this winter amid fears that overcrowding is heading towards record levels.
The Health Secretary said hospitals are under “huge pressure” and that it would not be sustainable for Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments to keep coping with rising demand.
He issued the warning as Prof Sir Bruce Keogh, the country’s most senior doctor appealed to the public to make more use of pharmacies when unwell, to reduce “unprecedented” strain on GPs and casualty units.
The joint plea came as they announced an extra £300m to help struggling NHS services pay for extra beds and staff.
New figures show a substantial rise in the number of patients arriving at A&E, and those being admitted as an emergency, compared with this time last year. The situation is likely to worsen as the weather gets colder, and increasing numbers fall ill with flu, chest infections and norovirus.
Health officials said hospitals are struggling to cope with rising numbers of frail elderly patients, and expressed concern about current levels of crowding in hospitals.
Infection control experts advise that bed occupancy should not rise higher than 85 per cent because of an increased risk of superbugs when there is not enough time to clean beds properly between patients.
Last winter the national figure reached a record high of 89.5 per cent in general and acute wards.
Senior officials said hospitals are now struggling with higher rates of occupancy than would be expected for this time of year, which they warned was a “predictor of difficulty” for the months ahead.
Latest published figures for April to June show several hospitals were working at occupancy rates of more than 97 per cent, even when conditions were at their mildest.
Mid Staffordshire NHS foundation trust, Birmingham Children’s Foundation trust, Leeds Community Healthcare trust, Countess of Chester trust and the Rotherham NHS Foundation trust all had occupancy levels beyond 97 per cent during the period.
Mr Hunt said pressures on hospitals were now “higher than they have ever been before,” with a three to four per cent rise in emergency admissions year on year.
"We are very aware that over this winter there is going to be some real pressure there,” he said.
"It is worth also asking the question, is this going to go on like this? Are we going to have to continue having to put more and more sums into the NHS to withstand these pressures?
"And the answer is that it is not sustainable in the long run to say that all the extra pressure in the NHS has to be borne by A&E departments."
Health officials have drawn up long-term plans to redesign the system, to improve access to GPs at weekends, and improve care for the elderly at home, reducing pressure on hospitals.
However concern is mounting about immediate pressures on hospitals, with many experts suggesting that only a mild winter and low levels of flu staved off a crisis last year.
New figures show that last week 417,000 patients attended casualty units in England, compared with 389,000 people in the same week in 2013.
Over the last year, hospitals have repeatedly failed to meet A&E targets to see 95 per cent of patients within four hours, with average performance of 94.8 per cent since April.
Mr Hunt said he was expecting a “significant improvement” in waiting times as a result of the extra funding.
Sir Bruce urged the public to “nip problems in the bud” by seeking early advice from pharmacists about coughs, colds and respiratory infections.
He said: "We are keen to encourage people to use pharmacists more. In other parts of Europe pharmacies are very well used.
"Our GPs, frankly, during the winter feel really under strain with people coming in with coughs and colds - a lot of that strain could be relieved if people use pharmacies more,” he said.
David Flory, chief executive of the NHS Trust Development Authority, which supports struggling hospitals, said he was concerned that some hospitals were becoming too full to cope with “spikes” in activity when illness levels increase.
“What we are seeing is a generally higher level of bed occupancy than we would normally see at this period of in the year,” he said.
Mr Flory said the trend appeared to be fuelled by rising numbers of elderly frail patients with longer hospital stays.
Dr Mark Porter, Chairman of the British Medical Association council, said the NHS needed a long-term plan to “stop lurching from one crisis to another.”
He said: "Pressure on services has been so great this year that, in addition to a looming winter crisis, many emergency departments have already experienced spring, summer and autumn crises.”
Many hospitals were now working at full capacity, or over it, he said.
Health officials said the £300m injection means trusts can pay for the equivalent of 1,000 extra doctors, 2,000 extra nurses and create up to 2,500 extra beds.