With hospital admissions increasing, why aren't medical staff numbers going up?

A case of "too many cooks spoil the broth".

Recent news regarding a 37 per cent increase in emergency hospital admissions comes as no surprise. There has been significant advancement in diagnostics and management intervention over the past decade and beyond and hence people are simply living longer. Many individuals suffer from chronic conditions where relapses occur and do so frequently. A patient with ischaemic heart disease may present regularly with chest pain, a patient with chronic bronchitis may present with a chest infection and someone with diabetes may be admitted with excessively high blood sugars. Therefore patients are admitted to hospital to achieve optimisation of their clinical state and appropriate care to see them through the acute phase.

Having worked in the NHS for five years I am for one proud of the care we deliver – this may be a biased opinion but it is an institution we should be proud of and continue to support whole heartedly. One of its detriments however is the simple lack of its workforce. Hospital specialty teams are typically led by a consultant, a specialist registrar, and if lucky a couple of senior house officers and house officers. Of course not all members of each team are present at any one time in view of on call commitments, leave post shift work and additional training commitments which fall under the continuing medical education (CME) umbrella. Therefore it can prove quite a challenge to serve the ever increasing patient admission rate with a not so concrete workforce.

In 2010, the government introduced the NHS 111 service with its aim to eventually replace the current NHS Direct service by 2013. Individuals are advised to call 111 if:

  • You need medical help fast but it's not a 999 emergency.
  • You think you need to go to A&E or need another NHS urgent care service.
  • You don't know who to call or you don't have a GP to call.
  • You need health information or reassurance about what to do next.

(Available from www.nhs.uk)

According to the website’s section entitled "How does it work?", the service is manned by "fully trained advisers supported by experienced nurses who will ask you questions to assess your symptoms, then give you the healthcare advice you need or direct you straightaway to the local service that can help you best."

Now I may be wrong, but if I was unwell no matter how severe I would personally choose to see a doctor in person and not talk to some random on the phone. Similarly if I chipped my tooth I would surely see a dentist and if I strained my hamstring playing football I would surely benefit by seeing a physiotherapist.

In the north west of London there are now plans to close four A & E units. The medical director for NHS North West London, Dr Mark Spencer, said: "hospitals here face considerable clinical and financial challenges." Now bearing in mind the rise in acute hospital admissions surely it doesn’t seem feasible to proceed with such plans?

Research by the Dr Foster group has shown an increase in patient mortality if admitted as an emergency over the weekend as well as higher mortality rates in hospitals with the fewest senior doctors available at the weekend. In response to these findings, the Royal College of Physicians is now working on plans to ensure consultant cover is present around the clock. We have of course all read about the apparent horrors of "Black Wednesday", the first Wednesday in August, where freshly faced junior doctors start working and have been deemed responsible for an apparent 6 per cent rise in emergency admission mortality. It begs the question therefore that if these juniors are responsible for such a killing spree why are seniors not actively training them from the moment they set foot in medical school to ensure they are fully capable and confident in dealing with acute medical and surgical problems instead of brushing them under the carpet and making them someone else’s problem.

So what is the solution? Well of course there is no easy answer but with simple deduction, if the number of patients being admitted are increasing, increase the number of doctors suitably trained to deal with the problem first hand, and of course with that follows the number of multidisciplinary staff, such as nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists.

I guess what we have here is a case of "too many cooks spoil the broth" or as an alternative "there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians".

Whichever you prefer.

Neel Sharma is a Medical Doctor and Honorary Clinical Lecturer at the Centre for Medical Education, Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry

The A & E department at the Queen Elizabeth in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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