The NHS is ‘in effect rationing care’ by admitting fewer patients, with the most significant reductions seen in the most deprived areas, the Health Foundation has claimed.
New analysis from the think tank, published on Friday (23 June), has shown that 800,000 (12%) fewer patients in England were admitted to hospital in 2022 than in 2019, dropping from 6.8 million to 6 million.
And the average length of stay increased from 7.3 days to 8.3 days across the same period.
This was far worse for those living in deprived areas, with emergency admissions in England’s poorest areas dropping by 80,000 over three years: more than double (35,000) the decrease for those in the least deprived areas.
The trend – which is a reversal of those seen the decades leading to the Covid pandemic – raises questions as to whether the NHS can meet its recovery targets, the Health Foundation said.
Researchers said reasons for the decrease likely include the continued presence of Covid-19, with Covid patients generally staying longer in hospital, and a cohort of sicker patients being admitted due to increased waiting times for treatment.
They also suggested it could be linked to delays in discharging patients who are medically fit to leave hospital. February 2022 saw 14,000 delayed discharges, nearly double October 2020’s 8,000.
Charles Tallack, director of data analytics at the Health Foundation, said: ‘Hospitals are stretched to the limit, with bed occupancy well above safe levels. Patients are staying longer in hospital than before the pandemic, due to a range of factors including the ongoing impact of Covid-19 and delayed discharges. As a result, hospitals appear to have had little choice but to increase admission thresholds and reduce the number of patients being admitted, particularly in deprived areas of the country.
‘Years of under investment has seen hospital bed capacity come under real strain and social care and community services are severely stretched. The NHS has a huge task to recover services and improve access to care but it’s clear that more investment is needed to boost capacity inside and outside hospitals if these ambitions are to become a reality.’
Last week, the National Audit Office (NAO) warned that the NHS’ performance against targets has deteriorated further since the pandemic, with the health service unable to ‘secure the full benefits’ of increased spending and staff numbers.