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More NHS patients coming to harm due to ‘sub-optimal care’

Harm caused by treatment delays increased to 1,515 cases last year

More critically ill patients are coming to harm as a result of inadequate care provided by NHS staff, figures suggest.

The number of serious incidents involving what the NHS calls “sub-optimal care of deteriorating patients” is going up in hospitals, ambulance services and mental health settings.

The figures, provided to former Liberal Democrat health minister Norman Lamb, show the number of patients in hospital who are suffering harm because of delays in their treatment rose from 700 for some of 2015-16 (only part-year figures were available) to 1,027 in 2016-17, and then again to 1,515 last year.

The number of serious incidents of all kinds that occurred in acute hospitals fell slightly between 2015-16 and 2017-18, from 12,303 to 11,637 – a 5% fall.

“The figures show there have been disturbing deteriorations in performance in some vital areas of patient safety,” Lamb told the Observer.

He said it is “inevitable” that understaffing across the NHS is likely to be a key factor in the increases, with doctors and nurses unable to give every patient the time and attention they need because of the growing demand for care.

NHS Improvement, the health service regulator, said the NHS was short of 93,000 staff during 2017-18, including 37,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors.

The number of recorded serious incidents involving sub-optimal care of deteriorating patients in hospital rose 10% from 580 in 2015-16 to 636 in 2017-18, NHS England’s data showed.

In England’s 54 mental health trusts it went up 16% from 91 in 2016-17 to 106 last year.

Hospitals have also seen increases in the number of such incidents involving surgery or other invasive procedures, up 16% over the last two years to 865, and diagnostic incidents, which includes delays and failure to act on test results, up 28% to 1,195.

However, leaks of confidential information and the number of patients suffering a slip, trip or fall while in hospitals have both fallen.

A spokesperson for NHS Improvement said patient safety was a top priority for the NHS.

“When serious incidents occur we expect NHS providers to investigate and get to the underlying causes of what happened,” they added. “The purpose of these patient safety investigations is to establish learning so local, and in some cases national, changes can be made to ensure patients are kept safe and staff are supported to prevent similar incidents occurring.”