Nearly 30,000 people had to wait more than four hours at North East hospital emergency departments since September, new figures show.
Information compiled by the Labour Party from data from NHS England reveals 29,806 patients had waits at A&E in excess of the NHS’ four-hour target.
Health chiefs blamed increased pressure on resources across all parts of the NHS, particularly during the winter. But a leading patient group raises fears patients are not seen quickly enough.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients’ Association, said: “Whilst it is important that trusts seek to implement appropriate and efficient triaging protocols to ensure that the most serious cases are seen first, it is incredibly concerning to see the target missed for so long, in so many places.
“The four-hour waiting time target is a benchmark for quality and a barometer for identifying the health of individual trusts and hospitals. Patients have a right under the NHS constitution to be treated within four hours in A&E and as a fundamental right it is important that it is met, and when it isn’t, this must be accompanied by thorough explanations.”
County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust was the region’s worst for meeting A&E times, missing the target for major A&E departments for 33 weeks since last September. A trust spokesman said initiatives had been put in place to ease pressure. He said: “In common with acute trusts across the country, we are facing a continuing growth in the number of patients accessing A&E. Attendances at our two A&E departments at Darlington Memorial Hospital (DMH) and the University Hospital of North Durham (UHND) increased by 1.6% in 2012/13 compared to the previous year. A total of 121,300 people attended A&E over the year.
“This trend appears to be continuing with a 7.7% rise in attendances in April 2013, compared to the same month in 2012.
“In response to this, we are carrying out a number of initiatives which include investment in additional beds at DMH and UNHD; a new clinical assessment unit at UHND; seven day per week rapid assessment clinics, and a range of other measures designed to reduce pressure on beds and A&E.”
Hospitals across the region have struggled to meet the target to see 95% of patients within four hours. Only Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust managed to meet the target each week. This has been put down to the trust’s new ‘ambulatory care’ and ‘surgical assessment units’ which mean patients can be triaged and sent straight to a dedicated unit for their treatment without the need for A&E.
Figures also reveal the number of people who had to wait longer than an hour to be transferred from the North East Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust to hospital care had increased from 241 in 2010 to 2,165 in 2012.
A spokesperson for NEAS said: “We consistently out-perform national targets. The goal for reaching life-threatening emergencies is 75%, we are currently running at 79%. It’s even higher for the 19-minute response category – something we achieve in 97% of cases.
“A crew must stay with a patient when they arrive at hospital until the handover takes place. Clinically, it’s the right thing to do. We cannot simply deliver a patient and drive off.”
Last winter was particularly challenging for the NHS in the North East and A&E departments saw much higher numbers of patients than in previous years.
A joint statement from the Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear area team and Durham, Darlington and Tees area team of NHS England said: “Over 925,000 patients attended A&E in the period covered by these statistics. However, despite these increased numbers, it is still disappointing and unacceptable that some trusts did not consistently achieve the four-hour target in some weeks.
“NHS England’s area teams are working with clinical commissioning groups, trusts, the ambulance service and local authorities to establish new urgent care boards which will be looking at how we can improve and develop our plans for this winter.”