Overstretched and underfunded community health services are failing elderly patients and contributing the the crisis in the NHS, Age UK has warned.
In a report published today, the charity warned that longstanding problems in community healthcare and adult social care, exacerbated by the pandemic, are making it more difficult for older people to access the support they need to avoid hospital admission.
More joined up care in the community and better staffing levels for key roles such as general practice nursing and district nursing would help to reduce the pressure on hospitals, the study’s authors argued, pointing out that half (49%) of all people arriving at A&E by ambulance are over 65.
The report found that ‘many older people rely first and foremost on the services provided out of GP practices, by doctors and practice nurses especially.’
The proportion of older people feeling supported to manage their health condition has fallen by 20% since 2016/17, and one in five people aged over 80 have some unmet need for social care, the study found.
This comes amid a growing efforts to reduce hospital wait times by tackling shortages in adult social care packages in the community. This week’s data from NHSE showed that bed capacity was at 95% across English hospitals, with many beds occupied by patients awaiting a social care package before discharge.
Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director, said: ‘We need to turbocharge our efforts to recruit, retain and support all the brilliant professionals that older people depend on to help them stay well at home, especially if they are struggling to manage several serious health conditions, like heart disease and diabetes, as many are.
‘We need lots more social care staff, and hugely important community health professionals like district nurses and occupational therapists, as well as GPs. Then we need to get them working effectively together – not only at the point when an older person is at immediate risk of needing a hospital bed, as with urgent response teams and virtual wards, but well before they reach that point too.’
The report highlighted the importance of developing continuity of care in the community health services in order to support elderly patients, with a number of patients who spoke to the report’s authors citing poorly joined-up care as a significant barrier to accessing treatment.
In the report, a GP said that patients with multiple conditions could become ‘caught in the middle of all these different people doing different things to you who aren’t necessarily talking to you.’
Additionally, the report reiterated that shortages in clinical roles such as district and general practice nurses are impacting the ability of community teams to provide care for patients.
The report found that ‘Low pay, an inadequate career structure and the pressures of not having enough time to complete daily tasks makes it incredibly difficult for care providers to retain staff.’
In October 2022, a report from Skills for Care found that there were 165,000 vacant posts in adult social care.
Ms Abrahams added: ‘Although this winter is not yet over it won’t be long before next winter is upon us, and it’s imperative we start work now to make sure it’s a much better one for the NHS and social care, and for older people too.’