High demand for NHS services is driving up waiting times to record levels, according to a new report from The King’s Fund.
In its latest Quarterly Monitoring Report, the think-tank has said that there were an estimated 3.8 million patients waiting for treatment in June 2016. This is the highest level since December 2007.
Richard Murray, director of policy at The King’s Fund, said: “Hospitals are treating more patients than ever before. Winter usually brings a dip in NHS performance, but what is striking now is that key targets are being missed all year round. This reflects the impossible task of continuing to meet rising demand for services and maintain standards of care within current funding constraints.”
The report found that more than one million patients were admitted to hospital from A&E in the first quarter of 2016/17, with the number of patients attending A&E departments also soaring to nearly six million.
This means that for each month in the first quarter of the year, there were an additional 54,000 attendances at A&E departments and 14,200 emergency hospital admissions compared to the same time last year.
The increased demand for services is placing the health system under huge strain with more than 90% of beds occupied by patients, which is above the threshold that is considered safe.
Meanwhile, 47% of NHS trusts are forecasting end-of-year deficits and only a third are confident of meeting the “control totals” set by NHS Improvement.
A worrying decline in confidence among commissioners has also been uncovered, with twice as many clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) now forecasting end-of-year deficits than at this time last year.
Murray added: “While new investment and actions taken to tackle overspending have reduced deficits among NHS providers in the first quarter of the year, it would be a mistake to suggest that the financial pressures which have engulfed the NHS have eased.
“Unless more is done to tackle rising demand, the ideas emerging from sustainability and transformation plans about cutting beds and reconfiguring hospitals will look even more unrealistic.”
Included in the missed targets was the number of patients who were medically fit to leave hospital but were still awaiting discharge. In June 2016 that figure was 6,100, which is the highest on record and a 22% increase on June 2015.
Lara Carmona, associate director of policy, international and parliamentary for the Royal College of Nursing, said: “The NHS is now struggling to cope all year round. It is a pressure cooker and with bed occupancy at such constantly high levels and community services stretched, there is nowhere for the pressure to escape to. Frontline staff are working hard to deal with these challenges to provide the very best patient care they can.
“The RCN has consistently highlighted the difficulties in treating more patients with too few staff and pressure to save money. It would now take very little for hospitals to be fully overwhelmed.
“The only solution is for the Treasury to recognise the scale of the problem, and to support hospitals in dealing with their financial difficulties. There must be no missed opportunities to protect patient care.”