A recent study by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) has found that the UK has the second lowest number of hospital beds per person in Europe, and fewer beds per capita than almost anywhere else in the developed world.
The study also reports that levels of hospital overcrowding in the UK have regularly broken recommended safety limits, designed to limit the spread of superbugs. The official figures show that since 2001, despite the problems associated with an ageing population, 50,000 NHS hospital beds have been closed in England alone.
The OECD report shows that France and Germany now have twice as many hospital beds per head of population than we do here in the UK. In the UK there are 2.95 hospital beds for every 1,000 people. In France there are 6.37 beds and in Germany, 8.27. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Poland and Estonia also now have many more hospital beds per 1,000 people than here in the UK.
The only European country which has fewer hospital beds per head of population than the UK is Sweden, but they have invested huge sums in alternatives such as community care.
Recommended overcrowding safety limits on NHS wards have been breached every quarter for the past two years, leading to potentially dangerous levels of overcrowding. Many hospitals are full to capacity, leading to elderly patients being forced to wait for hours on trolleys in corridors, being repeatedly moved from ward to ward and operations being cancelled as no beds were available.
Chief Executive of the Foundation Trust network which represents hospitals in the NHS, Chris Hopson, said that the figures were a clear indication that NHS hospitals are almost full to capacity all of the time.
He also pointed out that hospital was not always the best place for vulnerable patients, but that use of hospital beds could not be reduced until better services were available in the community.
Experts in infection control advice a maximum occupancy rate of 85%. This is because of an increased risk of superbugs such as MRSA when staff do not have the opportunity to clean bed areas properly between patients.
According to the OECD report 84% of NHS beds were in use at any one time in 2011, above the average figure of 78%. Since 2011, the problems of overcrowding in UK hospitals have become more acute. Figures released by the NHS show that in 2013 occupancy rates in English hospitals reached 87.6% and have remained above 85% since then.
A spokesperson for the OECD’s health division said that this rise in bed occupancy rates was a “source for concern.” The chief executive of the Patients’ Association, Katherine Murphy, condemned the figures as “shocking”.
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