A&E ambulance waits soar to winter high in Christmas week

PUBLISHED: 11:00 04 January 2018 | UPDATED: 18:11 04 January 2018

Colchester General Hospital's Emergency Department. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR/ARCHANT

Colchester General Hospital's Emergency Department. Picture: LUCY TAYLOR/ARCHANT

One in four patients endured long waits of at least 30 minutes in ambulances at A&E departments in the region last month, new figures reveal.

It comes as hospitals across the country compete with winter’s annual spike in demand. Health bosses yesterday praised the “hero” NHS staff who worked 17-hour shifts to help maintain standards of care at our hospitals amid another year of unprecedented demand.

New NHS England data shows that 1,814 out of 7,193 patients (25%) were forced to wait for at least 30 minutes in ambulances in hospital car parks, or with paramedics in corridors, at Ipswich, West Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds), and Colchester hospitals in December.

Of these, 454 faced at least an hour-long wait to be seen by emergency department staff – around one in 13 patients.

The Department of Health says ambulance crews should be able to hand patients over to A&E staff within 15 minutes of arrival. Not doing so increases the risk to patients due to delays in diagnosis and treatment, as well as the chance that a patient will get worse while waiting on a trolley.

Sicker and frailer elderly patients with respiratory illnesses are largely behind the unprecedented demand. Health chiefs insist patient safety is not being compromised during what is being described as the worst winter crises. Non-urgent operations and routine outpatient appointments have been shelved.

Karl Edwards, deputy director of service delivery at the East of England Ambulance Service Trust, said: “Our staff and volunteers are working extremely hard and we are working closely with every trust to do everything possible to achieve good patient outcomes. We urge people to only call 999 if it is a life-threatening emergency. If you need medical help, the NHS Choices website, pharmacies, GP, walk-in centres, and NHS 111 are available.”

Non-emergency calls to NHS 111 in Suffolk increased from the final week of December 2016 to December 2017: from 5,423 to 5,986 – an average of 855 a day.

Bed occupancy rates at Ipswich Hospital climbed as high as 98.8% on December 28, before dipping to 96.1% on New Year’s Eve. There were similar figures at the region’s other hospitals.

It comes at a time when estimates show an extra 84,000 people will be aged 65 or over in Suffolk by 2039, making up one in three people. The number of over-90s is expected to treble to 29,000.

Experts also disagreed with the Chancellor’s assessment in the Budget that £6.3billion of extra NHS funding over the course of parliament, including £1.6bn this year, would sustain levels of care.

Prime Minister Theresa May has defended the Government’s spending on the health service, saying “record levels of funding are going into the NHS”. She added that the winter pressures facing the NHS had been “planned for better than ever before”.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the NHS Confederation which represents organisations across the healthcare system, said: “Staff are working at full capacity to deliver the right care, but the pressures are becoming intolerable.

“The stats also mask the pressures which can be seen across all parts of the system - in social care, community and mental health services, as well as at the hospital front door and in our ambulance services.

“These delays cause distress to patients and their families but emergency departments are seen as a litmus test for the rest of the system.

“If the health service cannot cope at its front door, what lies behind it will also be struggling.”

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