Challenges Faced by the NHS Through the Winter Months

In the last few months, there has been continual coverage around the state of the NHS and how it will cope, with particularly hard winters. Leading doctors have stated that the NHS is facing difficulties each year when it comes to the colder winter months with predicted spikes in illnesses each year.

It has also recently emerged that annual figures for written complaints about NHS services in England have risen by nearly 5% compared to previous years (around 571 complaints per day throughout the UK.) Complaints rose roughly 9.7% about the care and service received at GP surgeries and dental practices, with over 83% related to patient’s frustration with GPs.

Why are health professionals concerned that this is going to be worse than any other winter in recent years, after all, running a doctor’s surgery or dental practice is challenging no matter the time of year. The challenges faced through the winter months by the NHS however, are mostly related to these issues in particular:

  • Increased demand
  • Funding challenges on the wider service
  • Organisational challenges

Increased Demand

During the winter months, doctors and hospitals face an unprecedented demand for services, as the cold weather causes a huge increase in illness. The chief executive of NHS England has already warned that if a major flu outbreak occurs in the UK as it has done in New Zealand and Australia, there could be severe consequences that the NHS may find hard to cope with.

A large problem is that hospitals’ ability to cope could be at risk due to hospitals being already overburdened. Statistics show that in January to March of 2017, over 1,597 patients had to wait in 12 hours in an A&E unit to be admitted into hospital, due to increased demand as a result of the wintry weather.

Furthermore, data released by the NHS shows that in July a total of 181,692 bed days were lost in hospitals due to so many beds being provided under ‘delayed transfers of care’, meaning that whilst patients are well enough to leave hospital, they can’t be safely transferred. This creates not only logjams but delays the treatment of those on waiting lists being treated as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Funding Challenges

NHS hospital chiefs have stated there is a need for additional funding from the government in order to fund extra beds and staff this winter. There have also been warnings that there looks to be a £30 billion requirement for funding for the NHS by 2020 if the financial pressure, patient demand and current challenges remain as they currently do.

What is Being Done to Minimise Risks this Winter?

How will the NHS cope with the surge in demand or a flu outbreak? The Department of Health has said the NHS trusts will be opening an extra 3,000 beds over the course of the winter ahead of anticipated need for more care services.

NHS England also put £237m into a free flu jab campaign to help cope with a predicted outbreak. This will be offered to a record 21m people, including primary schoolchildren, and for the very first time, to care home staff too.

Will it be enough?

It is clear that doctors, dentists, and the wider NHS have some difficult few months ahead with repeated complaints of a severe lack of capacity and funding. Whether lessons have been learnt from previously difficult winters remains to be seen.