Patients have had to sleep overnight in the A&E unit of one of the NHS’s biggest hospitals because it is overwhelmed by the number of people needing care, a leaked memo reveals.
The situation has arisen at Sunderland Royal hospital because it has been running out of beds despite it having recently added an extra 50 to its normal stock of 970 beds to help it cope with winter pressures.
In a message sent to local GPs last Friday titled “significant surge within the trust”, NHS leaders in the city said: “There has been increased pressures on bed capacity over the past two to three days which is having a severe impact across the trust. Fifty more beds are being used, 40 boarding in different wards and 20 patients were stuck in ED [the emergency department] as no beds available, resulting in some patients having to sleep overnight in ED.
“There has been some cancellations of elective activity [operations] and extra consultants have been pulled into ED to help manage the demand. It would be very much appreciated if you could only refer patients to ED if all other possible solutions have been exhausted.”
The hospital is seeking to buy places in local care homes as another way of freeing up beds and ending the logjam in its A&E.
Those who slept overnight in the unit will have been patients whom doctors had decided to admit as medical emergencies but for whom hospital staff had not been able to find a bed.
Sunderland’s overcrowding is the latest example of how hospitals have been struggling to cope with demand this winter, especially with higher-than-usual levels of flu increasing the pressure on beds. The NHS in England has added about 1,000 beds to help relieve the strain but some hospitals have ended up full despite that.
One local GP said the hospital’s request to send patients to the A&E only if there was no alternative was “exasperating” and made family doctors feel like they were being “a nuisance” when they were already using alternatives to hospital care as often as possible.
In recent weeks the Guardian has documented other examples of how hospitals are struggling to cope this winter. Cornwall Royal hospital recently told doctors they should discharge patients even though they may come to harm as a result because it was so short of beds. The Doctors’ Association UK called the move “morally repugnant and against the very fibre of what doctors stand for” while the British Medical Association said it was “a dire indictment of the state our NHS has been allowed to creep into”.