Fears over hospital's ability to cope

CLOSING hospital beds in an attempt to claw back millions of pounds of debt could put "already stretched" services under increasing pressure during the winter months, officials have warned.

CLOSING hospital beds in an attempt to claw back millions of pounds of debt could put "already stretched" services under increasing pressure during the winter months, officials have warned.

Concerned community leaders and union representatives yesterday said the loss of 55 beds at the West Suffolk Hospital would place an undue toll on health provision over the NHS's traditionally most busy months.

And they questioned what contingency plans had been put in place should major outbreaks of illness, such as influenza, hit the local population – and warned against sending patients for treatment outside the area should the Bury St Edmunds hospital reach its capacity.

"Obviously we have got concerns. Every year the issue comes up when all hospitals have a big influx of patients through the winter months," said Graham Kendall, Unison branch chairman.

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"How they are going to cope with the reduction in beds is anyone's guess.

"With the changes which are being made and the overspend at the hospital, the staff are not very happy and people are worried for the future.

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"It is not a very good time for staff or patients either. Patients see what is written in the Press and it concerns them – this is their local hospital and people value it.

"I wouldn't like to say what might happen to patients (if the hospital is full in the winter). It would depend on what services were available in our hospital and in other hospitals elsewhere."

The bed closures were rubber-stamped last Friday, while 220 posts are also expected to be lost at the unit in an attempt to recoup £20m worth of debt.

The news has met with widespread concern from residents and community leaders, with Frank Warby, portfolio holder for housing, health and crime on St Edmundsbury Borough Council, describing the situation as "disgusting".

"Patients are going to suffer. There has been an influx of migrant workers in Bury, like everywhere else, and this is putting extra pressure on already stretched services," he said.

"I think it will be a very difficult winter for the health services. We are losing 55 beds – what happens if we get an influx of patients because of an influenza outbreak, for example, or lots of car accidents because of icy roads?

"This is a rural area, so how would people get across to Addenbrooke's, or another Cambridgeshire hospital?

"There are no buses at night and no trains after a certain time, so how would people get across for appointments or to visit relatives? It has not been thought out."

But a spokesman for the hospital trust said working practices were currently under revision to minimise the impact of the bed closures and allow the same number of patients to be treated utilising fewer beds.

The discharge process would also be improved, she said, to result in shorter lengths of stay and more efficient use of resources.

"We will also be introducing same day clinics for GP or A&E referrals where appropriate, to prevent unnecessary admissions," she added.

"The hospital will also be increasing the number of procedures carried out as day cases.

"There is clear evidence to show that patients who have day surgery have an overall better experience, improved clinical outcomes and less risk of hospital acquired infections.

"The trust will improve its day case rates using the three theatres in our eye treatment centre and day surgery unit. This in turn will reduce waiting times and the number of beds required in the hospital."

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