The number of patients stuck in hospital unnecessarily has shot up by 70 per cent in Birmingham in the past year, official figures have revealed.
There were 169 patients occupying Birmingham hospital beds who didn’t need to be there during February – representing a big rise from 98 at the same time a year previously.
Opposition politicians said that a lack of social care was causing a crisis in hospitals, and leading to a rise in so-called ‘bed blockers’.
The problem can only get worse as cuts in council funding for local authorities led to a fall in social care places, said Labour’s Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary.
It follows the announcement that the Trust responsible for Birmingham’s state-of-the-art Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Edgbaston had been forced to re-open an old hospital, built in the 1930s, due to a beds shortage.
Last week it was revealed that the 1,213-bed hospital, which cost £545 million and opened in June 2010, had run out of room.
University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, has been forced to reopen two wards its former base which was supposedly closed to patients forever. The rise in the number of patients stuck in hospital unnecessarily, or so-called bed blockers, was revealed in official NHS figures.
They show how many patients are in hospital because of a “delayed transfer of care”, which means doctors say they are ready to leave hospital but they are still occupying a bed.
Delayed transfers can take place for a range of reasons and the figures show that 19 patients were stuck in Birmingham hospitals at their own request or the request of their families.
However, 30 were waiting for a place to become available in a care home, 25 needed a place in a nursing home, 16 required care in their own home and 39 were waiting for their needs to be assessed.
Mr Burnham said cuts to council funding had placed the health service under pressure because there was too little social care available in the community, forcing hospitals to treat patients instead.
He said: “Hospitals are under enormous pressure this winter. Too many across England, like in Birmingham’s, are operating beyond safe occupancy levels.
“Due to cuts to council care budgets and inadequate social care provision, many are having to sail dangerously close to the wind for reasons beyond their control. The news that many are full and unable to accept new patients is a warning sign that cannot go ignored.
“Waiting times in A&E are at their worst level for a decade – a sure sign that the NHS is struggling to cope with the toxic mix of cuts and re-organisation. It has lost almost 5,000 nursing posts since David Cameron came to power and in many places there are simply not enough staff on the ground to cope with the pressure.
“Ministers must act on this warning and ensure all hospitals have enough beds and staff to get safely through the end of winter.”
Following the Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s announcement that it is re-opening its old site, another major hospital trust warned that it was also “experiencing problems with capacity”.
Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Heartlands Hospital and Good Hope Hospital in Birmingham as well as Solihull Hospital, also warned that its accident and emergency department was experiencing increased demand – including from patients who did not actually require emergency care.
Dr Aresh Anwar, medical director for Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Our emergency departments remain under great pressure as we head towards the Easter weekend, with increased demand on our services.
"We are urging members of the public to help us by using A&E only for what it is intended – accidents needing urgent attention and emergencies.
“We are seeing people attend with minor problems when they should be using more suitable alternatives like GP walk-in centres, contacting NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 or their GP for advice. We routinely discharge away from the emergency department approximately 60 to 70 per cent of those patients who attend.
“We are also experiencing problems with capacity in our hospitals and are seeking the help of families and relatives of patients in order to support their discharge from hospital. This will benefit hospital ward discharge teams in speeding up the processes, ensuring hospital beds are given promptly to those who need them most.”
West Midlands Ambulance Service has also warned that it is seeing the effects of bed and staff shortages – which have meant ambulances cannot drop off patients.
Nearly 2,000 ambulances had waited more than an hour to hand over an A&E patient throughout March, assistant chief ambulance officer Steve Wheaton said.
Because they cannot abandon patients, ambulances and their crews are forced to provide treatment as best they can before the hospital can admit them.
As a result, some patients who dial 999 are having to wait up to an hour before an ambulance is free.
A spokesperson said: “West Midlands Ambulance Service (WMAS) can confirm it has seen significant delays occurring at hospitals around the region for several months, but especially since the New Year.
“WMAS continues to work closely with each of the acute hospitals around the region to tackle these issues. However, it is not uncommon for ambulance crews to have to wait a considerable amount of time before handing the patient over to the hospital.
“If ambulances have to wait to offload patients, they are not available to respond to other 999 calls.”
The service covers Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands conurbation.