THE NHS looks set for another catastrophic winter after it emerged that patients are already being forced to spend up to 18 hours in Lothian emergency departments on trolleys.
Already this month one sick patient at the Western General Hospital was left to languish more than four times longer than they should have had to because of a lack of beds.
The development, on Monday last week, saw the patient wait for 17 hours and 50 minutes and spend the night on a trolley bed at the Western’s acute receiving unit, which does not operate a walk-in service but serves as an emergency department for patients referred by paramedics or GPs.
The elderly patient was among seven who have become stuck in the region’s emergency departments for half a day or longer this month alone – more than six weeks before the January start of the official winter period as defined by the NHS.
It is likely to add weight to fears that the region’s health service is set for a repeat of last winter’s turmoil, when hundreds were left to lie on trolleys for hours on end and there were occasions when the Royal Infirmary had more patients than beds.
In a further concern to health bosses, worsening performance in the region’s emergency departments – which is seen as an indication of how the entire hospital system is coping – comes before an expected widespread norovirus outbreak which was largely blamed for last year’s chaos.
Lothian MSP and shadow health secretary Neil Findlay said it was “shocking” that a patient had become stuck for 18 hours but said he feared it would be just one of many cases in coming months.
He added: “It is this sort of case which shows that lessons may not have been learned from last year, where the NHS struggled to cope with the increased demand over the winter months.”
It is understood that the patient’s stay at the Western was extended as by the time staff felt they were well enough to leave, after being unable to find a bed, it was too late to discharge them, so they instead spent the night on the trolley.
Melanie Hornett, NHS Lothian’s director of unscheduled care, admitted that the winter ahead would be “challenging” and that demand for services was already high, but said 19,200 emergency patients were dealt with within a four-hour target last month.
She added: “I would apologise to anyone that has had to wait too long, we know this is not acceptable and our teams work extremely hard to ensure patients are seen, diagnosed, treated and admitted or discharged as quickly as possible. As part of our winter plan an additional 161 beds had been identified to provide temporary increases in capacity between January and March. We are opening additional beds as required to allow us to minimise delays for patients.”