Exclusive by Tom Bristow
Thursday, January 3, 2013
Hundreds of patients are having their hospital operations cancelled each year in Norfolk and Suffolk because of a shortage of beds and staff.
In the first nine months of 2012 the region’s four hospitals called off 1,312 operations for “non-clinical” reasons, meaning that either no beds or staff were available or there had been a problem with hospital equipment or their administration.
And in the last two years there has been a spike in cancelled operations after Christmas at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital (N&N), with a rise of 50pc in the first quarter of 2011 and a 60pc increase in the first three months of 2012.
Figures released in Parliament show almost 1,000 procedures are postponed every year at the N&N.
Director for surgery Karen Lough said: “Traditionally the period between January and March is extremely busy with higher levels of emergency admissions.
“It is also a period during which there tends to be higher than usual levels of norovirus in the community.
“Elderly and vulnerable people tend to be worst affected by the virus and are more likely to be admitted as a result.”
She advised people to not visit patients if they had been ill with a stomach bug and said that young children should not visit the hospital “unless absolutely essential”.
Health minister and North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said it was crucial for hospitals to get patients home quicker and to treat more people at home rather than in hospitals to reduce the number of operations which had to be cancelled.
He said: “The truth is that at the N&N the number of beds available in the new hospital when it was built was pretty restrictive.
“Ever since it was built they have operated at a very high occupancy rate at usually well over 90pc.
“That means whenever there are pressures you can quickly get to a point where the hospital is overflowing and the only thing they can do is cancel operations.
“Everyone recognises these hospitals are operating under enormous pressure. The answer is to be managing people’s care better in the community.”
At the James Paget hospital just under 200 operations were cancelled in both 2010 and in 2011.
A spokesman for the hospital said: “Every effort is always made not to cancel operations and to prevent inconvenience to our patients.”
He said an increase in emergency admissions was the most frequent cause for cancellations.
But the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn, where 445 operations were called off in 2011, said cancelled operations could become a thing of the past after they opened a new unit in early December.
Beds at the elective care unit are reserved for patients coming in for operations, which means they cannot be taken by other patients.
The hospital’s deputy chief executive, Mark Henry, said: “Operations for non-emergency cases could be cancelled for a variety of reasons.
“One of the principal reasons is when emergencies arise where other patients have to be treated for potentially life-threatening conditions or if there is a sudden influx of patients needing a bed while they have urgent treatment.
“Since opening our new elective care unit in early December we have not had to cancel any operations as a result of bed shortages.”
West Suffolk Hospital in Bury St Edmunds said the cancelled operations represented less than 1pc of all operations carried out at the hospital each year.
Andy Graham, interim chief operating officer said: “We do everything we can to avoid cancelling operations, but do occasionally need to postpone elective surgery for reasons beyond our control, such as urgent trauma cases and staff absence.
“When this happens, we contact the patients who have been affected and arrange an alternative date for their surgery within 28 days.
“We are pleased that the number of operations cancelled during the last six months has fallen and will continue working to reduce this figure in the future for the benefit of our patients.”