Doctor warns NHS “running on empty” as winter approaches

A senior medic has warned the NHS is “running on empty” as it heads towards winter.

Dr Nick Scriven, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, said current pressure was an “ominous sign” of what is to come.

“The day-to-day feeling in front door units is that the pressure on them is increasing every day now in terms of the numbers of people arriving and how ill they are when they get to them,” he said.

“Given that we are not yet in November, that is an ominous sign of the ways things will be over the next few months.”

He said this summer the NHS had seen activity levels similar to previous winters, with many hospitals operating “well above” the safe capacity of 85% of beds full.

“In reality, bed occupancy rates have been at more than 95% which is a safety risk to patients and already-stretched staff are not getting a single day’s respite,” explained Dr Scriven.

“We are in real danger of entering our busiest time of the year, with or without a major flu epidemic, with a workforce running on empty in their efforts to help look after those thousands of people who need urgent and emergency hospital care.”

A recent survey of Society for Acute Medicine members – doctors and nurses – showed that 60% of staff felt worse prepared for this winter than last with their major concerns staff morale, community care capacity and staff numbers.

Dr Scriven said: “The views of our members are of much wider concern as they are reflective of the feelings of staff across the NHS and performance figures illustrate just how strained the system is all year round.

“Even in summer we are seeing a steady rise in the number of people needing hospital admission year-on-year – more than 5% in 12 months – and no real change in the services available for them. It’s not sustainable.”

Dr Scriven said there was “still a clear need” for “radical action” to help the NHS survive “what will undoubtedly be a very turbulent winter period”.

“We received much criticism of our call to consider a formal suspension of elective surgery during January and February, yet it is clear given concerns being raised by senior figures that actions, some radical, are needed.

“It had been rumoured that a suspension similar to last year would happen but as of four days ago this has been ruled out.

“The steps taken so far to try to help us weather the storm will barely scratch the surface, so time will tell as to whether or not more drastic measures will be required.”

Acute medicine deals with the immediate and early treatment of adult patients with a variety of medical conditions who present to hospital as emergencies.

The specialty receives the majority of patients admitted from A&E and helps maintain the flow of patients through emergency departments to avoid exit block, the term used when patients cannot be moved into a hospital bed.