PATIENTS are being forced to wait longer for treatment at A&E in the Lothians – and health bosses fear the delays will only get worse.
Health chiefs said they were looking at “the beginnings of a new phenomenon” as increasing numbers of elderly patients put a strain on services.
New figures reveal that in March, 20,360 patients turned up for emergency care, more than 2000 fewer than last year, while the number of admissions fell by seven per cent.
But the number of people left waiting 12 hours or longer rocketed by 237 per cent, with delays of more than eight hours up 168 per cent.
The crisis has been blamed on older patients needing to spend longer in hospitals, the recent norovirus outbreak which has shut several wards and a lack of in-patient beds.
These factors have placed added strain on other areas of hospitals, forcing emergency patients to wait for staff and beds to become free.
It comes as the Royal College of Nursing – which is holding its annual meeting in Liverpool this week – said A&E departments were struggling to cope.
Tim Davison, NHS Lothian’s chief executive, said the health service was treating increasing numbers of older patients with more complex needs. He said: “We are beginning to see the impact of a demographic shift. Our population is growing by one per cent a year and is becoming significantly older. The number of over-75s and 85s will double in the next 20 years. We are dealing with frail, older patients with multiple conditions and no easy fix.”
The average age of patients admitted to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary was 72 in March, rising from 66 last year and 59 in 2008. Mr Davison added: “We need a strategic solution. An incremental fix a bit, fix a bit, fix a bit is not going to work. There’s no point in thinking it’s a quick fix with a few quid here and a few staff there.”
Health bosses have brought in new measures to address the worsening situation at the ERI, Sick Kids and St John’s A&Es and the minor injuries clinic at the Western General Hospital. They include a review of capacity in hospitals and the community, new staff have been hired and the Scottish Government is developing an unscheduled care action plan.
But health bosses have warned it could take a year for performance to reach the proper standard in Lothian.
George Walker, a non-executive member of the NHS Lothian board, questioned why the number of patients facing excessive waits rose so sharply, given the decrease in numbers. He said: “Attendances have decreased by 9.2 per cent and admissions by seven per cent. These are quite significant falls. Something isn’t adding up.”
Last month, 88.04 per cent of emergency patients were admitted, transferred or discharged in four hours, compared with 93.27 per cent last year. The Scottish Government expects a 98 per cent hit rate.