THERE is a ‘real risk’ of a return to the hospital chaos seen at the start of January as we only now enter the busiest time of the year, health chiefs have warned.
At its worst, people queued outside A&E units and sick patients had to be sent straight from Worthing Hospital to St Richard’s in Chichester as NHS staff struggled to cope with the ‘unprecedented demand’.
The full extent of the pressures on A&E for the week starting January 5 were spelt out at West Sussex County Council’s health and adult social care select committee (hasc) meeting last Wednesday.
And there was a stark warning that with both St Richard’s and Worthing hospitals still close to capacity, another spike in demand would see a swift return to what was called ‘the perfect storm’.
Katie Armstrong, chief officer for Coastal West Sussex Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) told the meeting: “What we saw over the Christmas was unprecedented demand which was no different to what was seen across the country.
“The problem was we had unprecedented demand on A&E and full hospitals so it really was the perfect storm.”
She added: “It’s important to realise this was not even our busiest time.
“We are about to go into our busiest time with an exhausted workforce and a still sick public... so there is a risk now and over the next few months.”
Much of the blame was directed at problems with community services after it was announced that there were still around 130 patients, nearly all elderly, who were still ‘bed blocking’.
There are still 50 patients at St Richard’s and 80 at Worthing taking up acute beds who are ready to be discharged but require additional services that are not in place, said Rob Haigh, chief of service, medicine at Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
Mr Haig argued that the seven per cent increase in patients visiting A&E over the winter months was not unprecedented.
Calling the situation a ‘disgrace’, he said: “This is something we expect every winter, the bulge in demand was not isolated to us.
“The pace was simply not sufficient in moving elderly and frail patients who no longer required hospital care.”
All non-emergency operations were cancelled at the start of the month, and speaking about the large number of beds still being occupied, Mr Haig added: “This continues to have a significant impact on the flow of patients, not only through A&E but for people who need operations and that increases the risk to patients, particularly those who are elderly.”
Cllr Pam Dignum said community NHS services were working flat out, often dealing with frail patients who had complex needs who were therefore difficult to move.
She also cited a lack of places at residential homes, particularly in the north of the county, which meant often there was nowhere for them to go, and fellow councillors agreed this remained a major problem.
At the peak of the chaos earlier this month, St Richard’s and Worthing hospitals were operating at 97 per cent capacity, the meeting heard. There were three occasions where Worthing was so full, sick patients were sent by ambulance directly to St Richard’s.