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Up to 8,000 deaths a year may be caused by rising bed-blocking

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Up to 8,000 deaths a year may be being caused by “deadly” levels of NHS bed blocking, the first study into the matter has found.

Researchers examined the biggest surge in deaths for 50 years, which was seen in 2014/15, with almost 40,000 more casualties than normal.

The study linked the higher mortality rates with soaring levels of bed blocking – which has risen by 50 per cent since 2014 for acute patients.

The team from the universities of Liverpool, Oxford, Glasgow and York

found increased delays for patients in 2015 was associated with up to a fifth of the increase in mortality levels – amounting to almost 8,000 deaths a year.

For each additional acute patient delayed being discharged, over previous levels, they found an increase of around seven deaths.

Dr Mark Green at the University of Liverpool said the findings showed the need for extra funding for the NHS and social care.

“Since 2014, the number of patients admitted for acute conditions who were delayed being discharged from hospital have has almost increased by 50 per cent.”

“This creates blockages in the NHS where beds are not available for new patients, and since these individuals are being admitted for acute and often pressing issues any delay to accessing services can be deadly,” he said.

The study was observational, so it could not prove a link between rates of bed blocking and increased mortality.

But researchers said other explanations – such as flu, the ageing population and random fluctuations could not fully explain the trends.

They said the delayed discharges – which are often caused by an inability to arrange adequate social care in the community for people leaving hospital – could be preventing other, sick people from being admitted to hospital for the care they need.

“While mortality rates fluctuate year on year, this was the largest rise for nearly 50 years and the higher rate of mortality has been maintained throughout 2016 and into 2017,” the authors wrote in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Why is the NHS under so much pressure?

An ageing population. There are one million more people over the age of 65 than five years ago

Cuts to budgets for social care. While the NHS budget has been protected, social services for home helps and other care have fallen by 11 per cent in five years

This has caused record levels of bedblocking, meaning elderly people with no medical need to be in hospital are stuck there. Latest quarterly show occupancy rates are the highest they have ever been at this stage of the year, while days lost to bedblocking are up by one third in a year

Meanwhile rising numbers of patients are turning up in A&E – around four million more in the last decade, partly fuelled by the ageing population

Shortages of GPs mean waiting times to see a doctor have got longer, and many argue that access to doctors since a 2004 contract removed responsibility for out of hours care

They added: “The increase in mortality rates has occurred during a crisis in the National Health Service (NHS).

“The number of NHS trusts with budget deficits has increased sharply since 2014/2015, as did waiting periods for elective surgery in 2015.

“Issues within the NHS are being compounded by problems with the provision of adult social care to support individuals leaving NHS care and pressures of increased demand.”

Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK said the findings were”worrying”.

“It is deeply concerning that we are still seeing more and more older people being denied the chance to go home speedily, often because of problems in securing the care they need.

“That’s why the Government must stand by its commitment to addressing the failings of our social care system, by investing in its future and publishing proposals that set out a long term solution.”

Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat Health spokesman said:  “It is a stain on our country that lives are being lost because of the severe under-funding of the NHS and social care, as this disturbing research suggests.

“You can’t starve these services of resources without damaging the care and well-being of patients.”

NHS England declined to comment.