Are half of hospital bed cuts "targeting" the elderly?

10 January 2012

Yesterday, the Daily Telegraph reported that more than half of the beds cut from NHS hospitals had been taken from those allocated to elderly patients.

The claim was based upon data gleaned from Freedom of Information requests submitted by the paper to each of the 172 NHS Trusts. But what conclusions can we draw from these findings?

The first thing to note is that the Telegraph only received responses from 39 of the trusts that it queried, as the paper itself recognises. 

While this doesn't necessarily undermine the findings presented, it does mean the picture may be incomplete.

For instance, it is clear from the data provided in the Telegraph's article that there are some large discrepancies between NHS trusts when it comes to bed cuts. The Telegraph notes that:

  • City Hospitals Sunderland NHS Trust cut 69 geriatric beds

  • Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Trust cut 74 beds

  • East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust cut 45 beds (across three hospitals, although the trust covers five hospitals)

Of the 259 total beds for the elderly that we are told have been axed, these three trusts account for 188. Therefore the remaining 36 trusts account for 71 beds, or an average of just two beds each.

Given that 133 trusts are unaccounted for, it is difficult from the information provided to tell whether these three trusts are outliers, or symptomatic of a wider trend.

Furthermore, as we have noted before, FoI requests can elicit different responses from different trusts to the same question, meaning we cannot know how comparable the data compiled by the Telegraph is without seeing the individual responses.

The Telegraph also noted that 17 per cent of NHS beds are for the elderly — obtained by using figures from the British Geriatric Society for the number of geriatric beds (20,796) and the number of general and acute beds (121,688) in 2008/09.

The latter figure excludes certain beds set aside for specialist purposes, such as those provided for mental illness, learning disabilities and maternity care. If these are included, the percentage of beds assigned to geriatric medicine is reduced to 13 per cent.

According to the article, this suggests "that managers have deliberately targeted elderly beds for cuts". Given the low response rate and the large differences between different trusts, this may be something of a generalisation.

Full Fact will be keeping an eye out for any more information released by the 133 trusts currently not covered by the Telegraph's analysis to see if this supports or weakens the conclusions drawn.

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