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What’s really happening with hospital bed numbers?

BMJ 2017; 358 doi: (Published 27 September 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;358:j4439
  1. Jennifer Richardson, features editor
  1. The BMJ
  1. jrichardson{at}

Doctors warn that hospitals are “reaching breaking point” in response to a report that seeks to provide a better understanding of NHS bed capacity in England, writes Jennifer Richardson

“It feels really tough on the wards,” says Royal College of Physicians registrar Andrew Goddard. A report from the King’s Fund this week confirms one reason why: hospitals in England are at risk of being unable to manage the movement of patients between departments, because of a growing shortage of beds.

It is the conclusion of an analysis of NHS hospital bed figures over the past 30 years and in comparison with other EU countries. Drawing on multiple sources of data, NHS Hospital Bed Numbers: Then, Now, Next, attempts to paint a clearer picture of the national situation.

This is particularly pertinent given the sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs) charged with overhauling care by 2020-21—as the report points out, half of the 44 STPs propose to reduce the numbers of acute beds or close emergency departments.

The number of NHS hospital beds in England has more than halved in the past three decades, the report estimates. However, it emphasises the difficulty of establishing absolute figures, thanks to differing methods of data collection: the definition of a bed is loose, with the report saying that “staffed beds is generally what is meant.” The King’s Fund clarified that the numbers cover general and acute, mental health, learning disability, maternity, and day only beds as averages of “beds available [each day] for patients to receive care …

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