Health: Preparing for winter health pressures

Steve Bush, A&E clinical directior at St James's Hospital
Steve Bush, A&E clinical directior at St James's Hospital
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Hospitals are now on alert as patient numbers and demand increases at this time of year. Katie Baldwin reports.

As winter sets in, the health care system traditionally comes under increasing pressure.

Colds and flu can hit vulnerable people hard, leading to more needing hospital treatment.

Meanwhile outbreaks of sickness bugs may affect wards and bouts of cold weather can increase drastically the number of patients with sprains and broken bones.

It can all add up to a perfect storm for our health services – especially accident and emergency departments.

Every year, the NHS designs plans for how it will cope with this extra demand over winter. But this winter, there is more pressure than ever on the service to ensure it can cope.

In West Yorkshire, health bosses say they have made as many preparations as possible.

Elaine Wyllie, director of operations and delivery for NHS England in West Yorkshire, told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “There are always winter plans and this year is no exception.

“This includes putting in extra beds and bringing in outside health professionals. It also includes things like ensuring staff have had their flu vaccination.

“We are as prepared as we can be – though this does not mean there won’t be pressure.”

January and February are the months when hospitals usually feel the strain more acutely.

In those months 95 per cent of beds are occupied on average, compared to 85 per cent at other times of the year.

Ms Wyllie added: “During the winter months we see a much higher proportion of frail and elderly patients who require much more assessment in A&E and in the absence of alternatives often need a hospital bed.

“Extra beds are being made available in hospitals across West Yorkshire in order to cope with the usual increased demand, one hospital has brought in extra staff in order to alleviate pressure on their established A&E team and another has a GP working in the A&E department.

“Those working in the hospitals in Leeds and Wakefield district have been able to look at how and where they expect demand to increase and they have taken steps so they are equipped to deal with it.”

Having a GP working in Pinderfields Hospital is one of the measures Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust have put in place as part of their winter plan.

The aim is to treat patients who come into hospital when not seriously ill.

“There might be other places which are just as easy, they might be better placed to treat people and they might be seen quicker,” Ms Wyllie added.

For those who need to be treated in hospital, an array of measures are being introduced – especially extra beds.

At Pinderfields 12 extra beds can be put in place, plus an additional 12 will be provided at weekends. More community nursing beds and “care closer to home” beds will allow patients to recover for longer after hospital stays.

There is also a new Ambulatory Emergency Care Unit at Pinderfields so some patient can go home rather than needing to be admitted.

Changes to the workforce include a community pharmacist working with district nurses and social workers allowing people to be discharged as quickly as possible.

In Leeds, there will be almost 60 extra beds for adults, with an extra 20 to meet surges in demand, as well as more beds for children.

Newly appointed consultant geriatricians and consultant respiratory physicians will be in post for winter while assessment units will extend opening hours.

Dr Steve Bush, clinical director for the Emergency Departments at Leeds Teaching Hospitals, said: “Winter is always a significant challenge in a large city like Leeds and it is important that staff in A&E and other parts of our hospitals are as well placed as possible to respond to a surge in demand for our services.

“Our plans have been carefully put together based on previous experience and mean extra beds and staff are available to help us maintain patient care when faced with a rise in attendances, which can be unpredictable and are often triggered suddenly by a change in weather conditions or seasonal illnesses.”

What you can do

Its not just health services which need to prepare themselves, experts say.

NHS chiefs have urged the public to take action to ensure they stay as well as possible – which means having the flu jab, ordering repeat prescriptions and keeping medicine cabinets stocked up.

For help and advice, and details on finding an available dentist, GP, pharmacy or optician, log on to Dial 111 for any non-emergency health need.

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