Newly released official data reveals that two-thirds of patients waiting for extended periods in A&E departments are over 60. The data has ignited concerns about age discrimination and inadequate services within the NHS, which is accused of “making patients sicker”.
The analysis, conducted by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, discloses that the longest waiting times are among the most elderly and vulnerable patients. Patients in their 90s experience the worst delays. Last year, while 29% of A&E attendees in England were over 60, they constituted 63% of those waiting for at least 12 hours.
Over 1 million people aged 60 and over waited for more than 12 hours in A&E in 2022. By December, almost half of those aged 90 and over who visited A&E had such waits.
Dr Adrian Boyle, President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, cautioned that elderly patients face serious risks due to the “dangerous” pressure on emergency services. Dr Boyle criticised the NHS’s failure to reinforce services amid rising demands, especially for the upcoming winter season.
“Patients are getting sicker due to these wait times,” Dr Boyle stated. He emphasised the need for more bed capacity to prevent emergency units from breaking down.
One of the systemic issues is the tendency for hospitals to focus on quicker and often younger cases to meet the four-hour treatment targets, leaving older patients to wait much longer. “It’s a flawed system that favours quick wins,” said Dr Boyle.
Elderly patients, particularly those who are “stoic and tend to keep quiet,” deserve a much higher standard of care, according to Dr Boyle. The medical community is increasingly concerned about an additional death for every 75 such delays, linking long wait times to an extra 500 fatalities each week last winter.
Earlier this year, the Government released a plan aimed at urgent and emergency care recovery. This plan promised an additional 5,000 staffed beds to alleviate hospital “gridlock” and cut long waits. However, instead of an increase, there has been a decline of 3,000 beds so far.
Health officials continue to maintain that their pledge will be fulfilled. However, Dr Boyle described the situation as a “massive failure of implementation”.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, described the situation as “heartbreaking”. Older patients often have multiple health issues requiring immediate attention, making them highly susceptible to the risks associated with extended waiting times.
The problem isn’t unique to England. In Scotland, over 4,000 patients waited more than 24 hours for treatment this year in A&E, a number that has increased 209 times compared to the figures of 2019. Dr John-Paul Loughrey, RCEM vice president, termed these figures as “completely unacceptable”.
Dr Boyle expressed his fears about the upcoming winter, describing it as a potential rerun of last year’s crises. “We have made no meaningful progress in increasing bed numbers, which is the fundamental solution to this issue,” he concluded.