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NHS ghost wards – a ticking litigation time bomb?

In recently released figures which was reported in the Guardian, the number of ‘ghost wards’ in NHS hospitals has doubled from 32 in 2014 to 88 in 2018. The figures show that 1,429 beds were unavailable within these ‘ghost wards’ for use. In light of the well reported challenges that NHS trusts have faced this winter, it is worrying that a large number of beds were unavailable at such a critical time for the NHS.

The lack of available resources for the NHS is a reoccurring issue. The lack of suitable MRI scanners is a more recent example which shows that patient safety is being compromised from lack of suitable resources. There is potential for increased number of medical negligence claims arising from injuries sustained from inadequate resourcing of hospitals.

Insufficient staffing

It has been reported that many of the closures of wards have been driven by lack of staff or insufficient funds. Staffing is an issue within the NHS at present. According to NHS Digital, 66,893 doctors and 175,350 nurses were employed by the NHS in 2017 – accounting for 20.2% of the total NHS workforce in England. The NHS is currently experiencing a shortage of doctors and nurses, to the detriment of patients.

According to NHS Improvement, in Q3 for 2017/18 there were 100,000 vacancies – including 35,000 nursing posts. Brexit will be strong influence in this regard, particularly for doctors and nurses from European Union (EU) countries. How many will stay if the UK leaves the EU? Further losses of staff could mean further ward closures. Patients with early stages of cancer for example, could suffer due to the inability of trusts to ensure that such patients are seen as soon as possible by qualified doctors and nurses otherwise claims could potentially increase as a result.

Financial implications

Given that NHS debt currently stands at £1.2 billion, cost is certainly a factor in the closure of wards. The savings made by closing a ward would no doubt look highly attractive to a NHS Trust operating on a tight budget. But would the savings made by closing the wards be offset by the additional risk to patients and the cost of clinical negligence claims from patients who suffered from the unavailability of beds? Perhaps. A potential alternative to closing wards could be a reduction in agency staff but given the current number of vacancies, this does not seem feasible for the foreseeable future.

What is the solution?

Insufficient numbers of available beds and qualified staff should be of concern as it could lead to delayed prognosis/treatment, leading to potential clinical negligence claims. Without sufficient bed spaces, patients miss out on being treated effectively and in a timely manner. The current financial pressures do nothing to alleviate the situation. Certainly, there no easy solution and while increased investment may alleviate some of the issues, it won’t fix all of them. Clear leadership within NHS trusts and central government, as well as long-term financial investment will be required to ensure that wards are available for use and sufficient staff are employed to ensure patient safety.

Alastair Banks is a Legal Assistant at Medical Negligence team.