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Bedblockers: an unhelpful label

Edmund Stubbs, 8 January 2015

Our media seems highly efficient at inventing names that imply blame for individuals experiencing social problems. For example, all too often, those without work are labelled as “benefit scroungers”.

Some might argue that such labelling makes people question the validity of their benefit claims. However, it is a fact that many of those reliant on benefits feel an intense guilt in having to rely on others. Many feel ashamed or even culpable for losing their jobs, or for being unemployable due to physical or mental disability.

Having to exist on benefits is an undesirable situation for almost all claimants and usually coincides with a stressful period of their lives. The same experience of stress and implied guilt is equally true in the case of our nation’s so called “bedblockers”.

The succession of hospitals declaring major incidents this winter is partly the result of a lack of free beds in hospital wards. This means that patients are having to wait longer in A&E before being admitted to hospital. The resulting “backlog” leads to patients “queuing” in ambulances or on trolleys in corridors until beds become available.

The typical bedblocker is a frail, elderly person, with complex care needs, no longer able to look after themselves either with no remaining family or with a family unable or unwilling to care for their needs.

Hospital wards are not a desirable place to be; in addition to sometimes being distressing they are dangerous; with high infection rates from norovirus and MRSA etc. They are also noisy places where it is hard to get an unbroken night’s sleep and where patients have little privacy.

The fact that the media has invented a derogatory label for these unfortunate and vulnerable individuals is inexcusable. By so doing the media is only adding to their stress and unease. To address the current crisis in the NHS the media must provoke our politicians to take action, rather than imply that the situation is mainly the fault of the patients and their families.

The lack of “joined up care” strategy between acute hospitals and A&E departments is causing the situation we now see where vulnerable patients are unable to be discharged. Because social care currently has a largely separate budget to that of other NHS services each tries to offload the responsibility and cost of such patients onto the other. To make matters worse care homes, worried about legal and regulatory sanctions, err on the side of caution when deciding whether or not they can cater for a vulnerable patient’s needs when they are discharged from hospital.

The present healthcare system lacks a designated professional body that can effectively oversee an individual patient’s care pathway as primary care physicians often do in the United States and Scandinavia. The British GP to patient ratio is now so large that it has become almost impossible for a GP to know exactly where a patient is in the system, and so they cannot reasonably be made responsible for this task.

The current A&E crisis shows us that we need to strive to establish an efficient system of integrated care, and also provides a vivid illustration how caring for our ageing population urgently requires attention.

Edmund Stubbs, Healthcare Researcher, Civitas


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