England remains in the grip of an emergency care crisis that’s seen little relief over the last three years.
Overcrowded emergency rooms, ambulances queuing outside of hospitals and scores of patients lying on trolleys in wait for a proper ward bed have become familiar sights across the country.
New statistics show this crisis is far from over.
More than 1.5 million patients — 1,540,945, to be exact — waited more than 12 hours to be admitted to hospital after arriving at an emergency room between February 2023 and January 2024, according to figures collected by the Liberal Democrats political party.
That’s nearly 10% of all patients admitted to hospital from ERs last year in England.
And the problem shows little sign of slowing. Last month, more than 54,000 people waited more than 12 hours in the ER in January — a rise of about 10,000 on December’s total.
What’s more, the 12-hour figure is only one part of most emergeny patients’ journey to treatment. It’s likely many had already waited for an ambulance to arrive.
The 12-hour-clock starts once staff have made a decision to admit a patient to hospital.
These extremely long and tragically frequent waits for care inevitably worsen patient outcomes. Some patients’ conditions will get worse as they wait for treatment. Others will tragically die before they recieve care.
In the first six months of last year, coroners issued two dozen warnings about deaths linked to emergency care delays in England and Wales, according to an analysis I performed for British publication HSJ.
I track these warnings as part of my reporting. I’ve found 48 published between February 2023 and January 2024 — the period covered by these latest statistics — that warn a lack of capacity in emergency care will cause deaths.
These reports detail the circumstances surrounding specific patient deaths, so they represent just a handful of the most shocking cases. The true number of people dying because of delays will be far higher.
The Royal College of Emergency Medicine estimated more than 23,000 excess deaths could have been caused by waits for emergency care in England in 2022.
Industry experts say the latest emergency room wait figures are “unacceptably long.”
Sir Julian Hartley, who leads public hospital industry body NHS Providers, said they were “symptomatic of an overstretched healthcare service,” where “high rates of hospital bed occupancy, delays in discharging patients from hospital and severe staff shortages” were all “slowing the flow of patients through the system.”
Numerous other factors, from inadequate social care to an ageing population, are contributing to overburdened emergency rooms.
Hartley says campaigns that aim to make the nation healthier should be adressed alongside “sustained investment” in the public healthcare system itself.
“A whole-government approach to public health issues, such as obesity and smoking, would also go a long way to help prevent ill health.”
Liberal Democrats health and social care spokesperson and member of parliament Daisy Cooper said: “Every day thousands of patients are being left scared and in pain in overcrowded A&Es, waiting for 12 hours or more to receive the care they need.
“Waits of 12 hours or more can have catastrophic consequences for people’s health, particularly the elderly and vulnerable.”
Criticizing the ruling Conservative party, she added that in some parts of the country, extremely long waits have “become the norm.”
“It’s time Conservative ministers started taking this National Health Service crisis seriously, instead of ignoring all the warning signs while patients suffer.”