Flu Season Brings Shut Down of Elective Surgeries and Procedures in United Kingdom’s National Health Service Hospitals
Mounting financial and patient-care problems in UK show NHS may not provide a quality blueprint for fixing US healthcare system flaws
Patients scheduled for elective surgeries—such as hip replacements or penciled in for routine outpatient appointments—have been turned away this winter from National Health Service (NHS) hospitals as the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) public healthcare system suffers another care emergency.
This latest crisis in the UK should provide further evidence to anatomic pathologists and medical laboratory leaders that the United States healthcare system is not alone in facing mounting financial and patient care questions. While an NHS-like single-payer healthcare system in the US is the goal of many reformers, the UK’s current crisis indicates such a system has serious flaws.
UK News Organizations Disagree with Government Leaders as to Cause of Crisis
NHS officials estimate as many as 55,000 elective operations and outpatient procedures were cancelled as hospitals attempted to free up capacity for the sickest patients. The Telegraph reported that the bed shortfall is blamed on a spike in winter flu, with budget cuts to social services for home healthcare, staff shortages, and an aging population further pressuring the healthcare system.
In late January, the NHS’ National Emergency Pressure Panel (NEPP) announced that planned operations, such as elective surgeries, that had been “suspended because of pressure on the NHS in January,” would be able to resume in February, Sky News reported.
Meanwhile, in response to the original decision in January to have hospitals stop performing elective surgeries and similar procedures, an editorial in The Guardian challenged Prime Minister Theresa May’s suggestion that the current crisis was primarily due to the flu epidemic.
“This is not the flu: it is a system-wide crisis brought about by seven years of mounting austerity,” The Guardian’s editors wrote. “Oh, and that is getting worse, too. The official defense is that this is not a crisis because there is a plan … But planning can’t magic up highly trained doctors and nurses. Plans do not make hospital beds. And while vaccination helps, you can’t entirely plan your way out of the impact of flu.”
Doctors Report ‘Intolerable Conditions’ at 68 Hospitals
The crisis reached new heights when specialists in emergency medicine from 68 hospitals sent a letter to the prime minister stating the “current level of safety compromise is at times intolerable, despite the best efforts of staff.” The letter, published in The Guardian, also pointed out media coverage reporting anecdotal accounts of “appalling” situations in many emergency departments “are not outliers.” According the doctors, conditions include:
- Over 120 patients a day managed in corridors, some dying prematurely;
- An average of 10-12 hours from decision to admit a patient until they are transferred to a bed;
- Over 50 patients at a time awaiting beds in the emergency department; and,
- Patients sleeping in clinics as makeshift wards.
NHS officials acknowledged staff criticism but attempted to paint the crisis as temporary. University of North Midlands NHS Trust (UHNM) told BBC News that area hospitals had been under “severe and sustained pressure over the Christmas period,” which had “continued into the new year.”
“Our staff want the very best for our patients and at times they find the situation frustrating, which can be reflected on social media. However, we are a leading trauma, stroke, and cardiac center and have been regularly praised by external independent commentators for the quality of compassionate care provided at our hospitals despite all our pressures,” Dr. John Oxtoby, Consultant Radiologist and Deputy Medical Director, UHNM, told BBC News.
“We have to keep going and turn up in a fit state to do the best job that we can. But it’s been really tough, particularly on more junior staff,” one hospital staff member told The Guardian. “And when they ask me, ‘Will it always be like this and will it get better?’ I cannot say it will improve as the truth is it won’t unless the NHS gets the resources and investment it needs.”
Basic Elements of Care Neglected
This is not the first time the NHS has come under fire for substandard patient care.
Between 400 and 1,200 patients are estimated to have died as result of poor care between January 2005 and March 2008 at Stafford Hospital, reported The Guardian. A 2010 report into care at the hospital, now named County Hospital and run by UHNM, found a litany of problems.
“For many patients, the most basic elements of care were neglected,” inquiry Chairman Sir Robert Francis, QC, told The Guardian. “Some patients needing pain relief either got it late or not at all. Others were left unwashed for up to a month … The standards of hygiene were at times awful, with families forced to remove used bandages and dressings from public areas and clean toilets themselves for fear of catching infections.”
Why not this crisis in US? Because, even if our system of healthcare has flaws, it is responsive to consumer/patient demand. Whereas, in the UK, the NHS is always budget short and so is always struggling to invest in expanding hospital/physician capacity to meet the steady increase in patient demand.
Dark Daily’s goal in reporting on this story is to help anatomic pathologists and clinical laboratory leaders in the United States understand that every country’s health system—like ours—has its share of unique problems and is not perfect.
—Andrea Downing Peck