Dr Mary McCarthy: Hospitals still at full occupancy rate of 95pc without any flu outbreaks

After the hustle of Christmas is over, there is a period of quiet before the New Year festivities start.

It can be a time to take stock, reflect on how things have been, consider what the old year brought and to look forward to the new year.

The start of 2018 was not a good time for the health service.

In January, it was recognised the winter pressures made it impossible to cope and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care decided all elective operations, planned for the first month of the new year, should be cancelled.

This was done to try and ensure emergency surgery would have enough theatres, theatre staff, anaesthetists and surgeons available. To doctors it seemed odd since the Government had previously said that the junior doctors who stopped work for a day were endangering patients’ lives, whereas now they were cancelling a whole month of surgeons’ work without any qualms their action would also affect patients’ care.

The financial restrictions on the health service continued for the rest of the year, with more and more hospitals getting into monetary difficulties. The problem with not having enough money to run the hospital is that the Government penalises the hospital by adding fines, which makes the situation worse. The most expensive part of any health system is the staff.

So the temptation is to get rid of staff, or to employ someone who is less expensive, which tends to mean less qualified, less well-trained or working shorter hours. All of which impact on patient care.

Last summer was busier than five of the eight previous winters.

We have been lucky so far this winter the weather has been very mild and we have not yet had a significant outbreak of influenza.

Even without the usual winter illnesses, hospitals are still full, with an occupancy rate of 95 per cent. It is recognised 85 per cent is the maximum bed occupancy since any figure higher than this produces worse health outcomes and more infection.

We just don’t have enough beds for a population that is ageing, getting frailer and often with more than one disease.

We need to spend more money on our health service and raising the level of funding to the European average would be a good start. Looking forward, we see potential damage to the health service.

The new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care talks of the risk of drug shortages after Brexit and promises to organise extra lorries and even extra flights to get drugs into the UK. It is good to think plans are being made, even if it makes the UK sound a bit like a disaster area where medication has to be ferried in.

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