Health Foundation Projections: General and acute hospital beds in England (2018–2030) research image

New analysis has revealed that increasing population pressures in the next 10 years could lead to thousands more beds needed within the NHS to maintain pre-pandemic standards of care.

The research, ‘Projections: General and acute hospital beds in England (2018–2030)’, raises big questions for incoming government over where investment should go to alleviate pressures in hospitals.

Research carried out by the Health Foundation’s REAL Centre finds that the next decade will see increases in demand for services from rising levels of chronic disease and a rapidly ageing population, putting. This will put pressure on hospital services that are already stretched with bed occupancy rates of close to 90 percent, the charity warns.

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The analysis finds that even if the NHS continues to reduce the length of time people stay in hospital, 23,000-39,000 extra beds could be needed in 2030/31 to maintain pre-pandemic standards of care — a 20-35 percent increase. The Health Foundation indicates that the build cost could be between £17 billion and £29 billion but cautions that this depends on a range of factors, with recent rises in inflation significantly increasing construction costs.

Over this decade, more hospital capacity will almost certainly be required to meet people’s health needs, according to the organisation.

The NHS has fewer beds per 100,000 population and shorter hospital stays compared to other health systems in comparable countries, which is causing critical pressures in hospitals when paired with a sharp increased in demand.

Anita Charlesworth, Director of Research at the REAL Centre at the Health Foundation, said: “Our projections show meeting the future demand for hospital care could require a far larger increase in bed supply than we would expect under the government’s current hospital plan, and significant additional funding for the DHSC capital budget.

“At the moment, there is no national assessment of the amount of capacity the NHS needs. Hospitals are full, and long waits for ambulances and A&E are a reflection of the pressures on hospital capacity. How quickly patients can safely be discharged plays a major role in the number of extra beds the NHS will need.

“The pressures hospitals face are linked to a lack of capacity in social and community care, making it hard to discharge patients.”

The Health Foundation argues that extra bed capacity is only part of the answer to meeting demands and that investments outside of hospital, particularly primary care and adult social care, are also needed to improve people’s health and reduce avoidable demand for hospital care.

“Policymakers need to look at capacity in the round, inside and outside of hospital, and set out a realistic plan for how the NHS will meet rising demand over the long-term,” continued Anita. “But whatever choices are made to meet rising demand, doing nothing isn’t an option.”

The research follows major changes to how health and social care is delivered in England. Effective from 1 July 2022, 42 integrated care systems (ICSs) are now in place across the country.

ICSs join up health and social care services locally to drive better population health outcomes. The idea is to break down traditional silos between health and social care services to provide more efficient, cost-effective, and person-centred care.

ICSs could help speed up hospital discharges and bed space by arranging community support faster for those who are ready to leave hospital but require some care at home.

George MacGinnis, Healthy Ageing Challenge Director at UKRI, believes assistive technologies will play a key role in reducing NHS pressures and giving people greater independence. With a broad range of assistive equipment available that improve people’s quality of life, such as modern wheelchairs, home automation devices, and remote patient monitoring, they can help cut later life NHS dependency, George emphasises.

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