Lewisham Hospital facing intense demand

Lewisham Hospital. Pic: Gilo 1969

University Hospital Lewisham has been struggling with “huge demand”, a spokesperson has admitted. This comes in the wake of reports last week that an adult had been treated in a children’s ward and the inclusion of the hospital in a Guardian article about more than 20 hospitals that had allegedly declared ‘black alert’ – a sign of severe overcrowding and intense pressure on services.

A spokesperson for University Hospital Lewisham (UHL), who did not want to be named, denied that the hospital had issued a black alert, something he said was unclear in The Guardian’s article. However, he did say that the hospital is facing much higher demand than normal, due to “national reasons” and increased winter pressures. But at no point had the hospital declared itself “not safe”.

A black alert is an NHS warning measure used since October 2016 to signal an intense strain on services. Hospitals can issue a black alert when severe demand causes an inability to provide full services or to ensure patient safety.

The spokesperson for UHL said that rather than declare black alert or review admission procedures, hospital management were currently discussing possible ‘escalation measures’ that would help ease the increased demand and pressure on A&E services. He said he was unable to comment on whether this year’s strain on services was at a higher level than normal, or to speculate about potential reasons for the current difficulty.

The Royal College of Emergency Medicine, which represents emergency medical staff, says that A&E departments are under “greater pressure than ever”. In a statement released last week, they said the challenges facing emergency departments today are severe: “Demand is at unprecedented levels and performance is the worst in over a decade.”

Dr Taj Hassan, President of the College, said, “despite the huge efforts of staff  the emergency care system is on its knees”. He pointed his finger at a lack of investment in social care as well as not enough emergency department staff as key factors in the current strain on services, adding that the NHS’s emergency care system is “clearly underfunded”.

UHL’s spokesperson however said that staff and management were doing all they could to “ensure patient safety is maintained”.

He said they had opened extra beds, brought in more nursing staff, and that there had been talks with out-of-hospital care providers. This last point, he said, would be crucial in enabling the hospital to discharge patients who should not be taking up limited resources and bed space in emergency departments.

He played down reports that it had treated an adult patient accommodated in a children’s ward, saying that it only occurred with one patient for a “handful of hours”, stressing that it did not occur in an active children’s ward. Contrary to suggestions in press reports, he said that at no point had adults and children been treated in the same ward.

The British Red Cross earlier controversially dubbed the situation facing the NHS a “humanitarian crisis”, after it was brought in to assist at a number of overstretched emergency departments. Prime Minister Theresa May dismissed the comments as “irresponsible and overblown”.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has hit back at claims of underfunding. Speaking in Parliament he said: “It is clear we need to have an honest discussion with the public about the purpose of A&E departments.”He said that up to 30% of patients treated in accident and emergency departments did “not need to be there”.

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