Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Data Briefing

Do we have too many hospitals?

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: (Published 13 February 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1374
  1. John Appleby, chief economist
  1. 1King’s Fund, London, UK
  1. j.appleby{at}

The NHS is under repeated pressure to close beds and hospitals. John Appleby investigates the true extent of provision and how it compares with that in other countries

London’s health services have been subject to major reviews—around one every decade since 1890.1 Nearly all have suggested that London needed fewer hospital beds and indeed fewer hospitals. A 1980 report reviewing London’s health services suggested the capital should lose the equivalent of a 500 bed acute hospital each year for 10 years to get into line with population needs.2 The Tomlinson inquiry report in 1992 and a King’s Fund review in the same year both, among other things, recommended reductions in hospital beds and by implication reductions in the number of hospitals in London. 3 4 Health Care for London is the most recent review of the capital’s health system, and like its many predecessors recommended fewer hospital beds and fewer hospitals through reorganisation of care into polyclinics and people’s own homes.5 Similar assessments have been made in other conurbations, and the trend seems to be to indicate a move to fewer hospitals.

But how many hospitals are there? How big are they? Indeed, what actually defines a “hospital” and do we really know how many are needed?

For data on NHS hospitals in England the key and only source is ERIC: the estates return information collection 6—not to be confused or partnered with ERNIE, the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment designed to randomly pick premium bond winners (an early British state run lottery/savings system).7

ERIC collates information on the NHS estate across England—from the cost of feeding patients each day (£7.47 on average in 2010) and the proportion of “untouched meals” (6.1% on average) to the land occupied by NHS hospitals (around 25 square miles). It also lists and categorises NHS trusts (the management unit) and sites (hospitals). In 2010 ERIC recorded 372 NHS trusts with at least one bed. Nearly 40% of these were primary care trusts—mainly small community hospitals. Around a third were acute trusts of various sizes, 15% were mental health trusts, and 13% were teaching trusts or trusts specialising in particular diseases or patient groups (fig 1).


Fig 1 Number of hospital trusts and sites, England 2010-11 (NHS trusts may comprise more than one hospital site)6

What the trust (the “managerial unit”) perspective can obscure is the huge number of actual hospitals in existence. Most trusts consist of several hospital “sites” (as the statistics describe them) that over time have become managed as a single business (trust). In 2010, across England, there were over 1000 NHS hospital sites with more than one bed. More than half were small community or mental health facilities with an average of 35 or 68 beds respectively. Just over seven in 10 hospital sites in 2010 had fewer than 100 beds (figs 2 and 3). The largest hospitals are those classified as teaching—an average of 478 beds in 2010.


Fig 2 Average number of beds by type of NHS hospital for 372 trusts with more than one bed, England 2010-116


Fig 3 Number of beds per NHS hospital site, England 2010-11 (1069 sites, includes all types of NHS hospital, from acute to long stay, community and mental health)6

Internationally there are large variations in the numbers and sizes of hospitals (fig 4). Data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (which unfortunately excludes the UK as we have never submitted data on hospital numbers) show the number of hospitals per million population range from around 12 in Israel to 68 in Japan. Similar variations exist for public and non-public hospitals. Even taking a reasonably liberal definition of what counts as a hospital (all hospital sites for all types of hospital with at least one bed), England seems to be less than averagely endowed with hospitals compared with other countries. And its public hospitals tend to be smaller on average than other countries’ too (fig 5).


Fig 4 Hospitals per million population in OECD countries, 2010. (For England, hospital/bed data includes all types of NHS hospital and trusts may comprise several sites. For other countries hospital/bed data for hospitals includes “general, mental health and specialised” hospitals as defined by OECD)6 8 9


Fig 5 Average number of beds per public hospital, 2010. (For England, hospital/bed data includes all types of NHS hospital and trusts may comprise several sites. For other countries hospital/bed data for hospitals includes “general, mental health and specialised” hospitals as defined by OECD)6 8

So maybe England has too few hospitals. But beware, the first rule of international comparisons is never to presume that other countries have got it right.


Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:g1374


  • Competing interests: I have read and understood the BMJ policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.


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