Across Yorkshire and the Humber, the investigation shows, at least 3,475 operations have been cancelled over the past three years because of a shortage of beds for patients.
Staffing shortages have been cited as another primary reason for delays, along with a lack of equipment and, as a number of trusts see an increase in the past year alone, experts say greater investment is urgently needed in healthcare services nationwide.
“Bed shortages are a symptom of the wider pressure being placed on services as years of under-investment and rising demand means services have been pushed to breaking point,” said British Medical Association Yorkshire regional council chair Dr Rajeev Gupta. “It is unacceptable that patients across Yorkshire should be left to face uncertainty over the future of their health care as cancelled operations can cause unnecessary disruption and stress. Now more than ever, the government must provide the necessary investment in both health and social care to alleviate the current pressures on services so patients can get the care they both expect and deserve.”
The investigation, based on a series of Freedom Of Information requests to hospital trusts across Yorkshire and the Humber, found that at least 3,457 routine operations were cancelled over the past three years because of a shortage of beds. Of the region’s trusts which responded, four admitted there had a steep rise in the past year alone in the number of cancelled operations because of a shortage of beds, with many also citing staff shortages.
The Royal College of Surgeons said such issues were “deeply concerning”. A spokesman said: “Cancelled operations mean patients have to wait longer for surgery, often in pain, and in some cases, longer waits may mean worse outcomes from their surgery. Clearly some hospitals are doing better than others. Those with worse performance need to understand why and put measures in place.”
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced measures this week to reduce delays for people being discharged from hospital to local care services, a practice known as ‘bed-blocking’ which can result in patients staying needlessly in hospital as there isn’t care provision available for them elsewhere.
An NHS England spokesperson said: “NHS England believes all cancellations should be avoided wherever possible as we recognise the concerns that patients face when this happens. However the level of cancellations remains low, in the context of the millions of operations performed in the NHS each year.”
A wide disparity has emerged across the region as new figures reveal the extent of cancellations to routine operations because of a shortage of beds.
In some parts of Yorkshire, hospital trusts have seen a fall in the number of patients whose operations have been put on hold. But in others there was a sharp rise, with some admitting the NHS faces “unprecedented demand” nationwide.
“Cancelling an operation is something we try to avoid,” said Sally Shearer, director of nursing and quality at Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, which saw a three-fold increase year on year. “It is frustrating for patients and families, but unfortunately it is sometimes necessary. We only do this when there is no immediate risk to delaying an operation.
“The NHS nationally is experiencing unprecedented demand and we will always work to deal with this pressure, while safeguarding the quality of care that patients receive. We will not start without being assured that the high quality aftercare our patients deserve is guaranteed.”
Ten of the region’s hospital trusts responded to FOI requests around routine operations cancelled because of a shortage of beds. Of these, six had seen a fall year on year to March, with four admitting they had seen a rise of between 68 and 455 per cent.
Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust, which saw the biggest increase, said this may have been down to a more thorough way in which it recorded its figures, rather than a marked rise in cancellations. But, it added, there were pressures.
“Last year nationally there was significant demand on NHS and social care services which we also saw locally; this impacted on the availability of beds for routine surgery as we prioritised access to our most vulnerable patients,” the trust said in a statement. “We always do everything we can to avoid cancelling an operation at short notice as can be seen by our overall volume in comparison to the national picture.”
The highest numbers were at Hull and East Yorkshire NHS Foundation Trust, which accounted for 38 per cent of the total. A number of measures have been brought in, the trust said, with cancellation rates falling.
“The trust has made great strides in reducing the number of operations cancelled for non-clinical reasons over the past few years,” a spokesman said, citing a 63 per cent drop since 2014/15. “However, as a Major Trauma Centre, we will never completely eradicate the need to cancel some operations, due to the need to prioritise the care of, and beds for, critically ill patients requiring life-saving treatment.”
York Teaching Hospital NHS Trust, which had seen a fall in cancellations, still had 605 over three years. Sometimes, the trust said, this was unavoidable.
“The trust sometimes has to cancel planned operations because beds are needed to accommodate acutely ill patients who are admitted,” a spokesman said. “We seek to minimise the number of times this occurs, and reschedule any operations so that they can take place as soon as possible after their postponement.”
David Purdue, chief operating officer at Doncaster and Bassetlaw Teaching Hospitals, which had seen 793 cancellations in the past three years, said this figure was around one per cent of its total: “In recent years the trust has seen growing demand, especially around winter time, with increasing Emergency Department attendance which often leads to a knock-on effect for other hospital services.
“We are looking at a number of initiatives to reduce instances of cancelled procedures and we apologise for any delay when an operation doesn’t go ahead as initially planned.”