Older people and emergency bed use: Exploring variation

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This paper explores factors that might be driving the significant variation in use of hospital beds by patients over 65 admitted as an emergency.

It considers the contribution made by patient-based (demand-side) factors, hospital (supply-side) factors, the availability of community services and resources, and broader system relationships (how care systems and staff work together and relate to each other) in driving the observed variation in length of stay and rate of admission. Its conclusions are based on new analysis by The King’s Fund of Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) and local population-based data.

Key findings

  • The potential reductions in bed use by patients over 65 are considerable; if all primary care trusts (PCTs) achieved the rate of admission and average length of stay of those with the lowest use, 5,700 fewer beds would be needed across England.
  • The links between bed use and access to community services such as GPs, community nursing and social care are not clear cut. But PCTs with the highest bed use tended to have excessive lengths of stay for patients for whom hospital was a transition between home and supported living.
  • Areas that have well-developed, integrated services for older people have lower rates of bed use. And areas with low bed use also deliver a good patient experience and have lower readmission rates.
  • Areas with higher proportions of older people have lower rates of bed use. These areas may be more likely to have prioritised the needs of older people and to have developed integrated service models.

Policy implications

PCTs with the highest acute bed use should develop strategies across the care system and align ways of working to identify ways to reduce usage. All clinical commissioning groups would benefit from benchmarking the relative use of acute beds in their area, and the related rates of admission and length of stay.

It is clear that organisational integration alone does not deliver improved performance. The key to reducing use of emergency beds lies in changing ways of working across the care system rather than implementing piecemeal initiatives. Organisations need to prioritise whole systems approaches if they are to deliver a real shift from hospital to community-based care.

Download the appendices for this paper

We have produced information on the length of stay, emergency bed days and emergency admissions for each PCT in England. This information will show PCTs where their organisation ranked with others in our analysis. The emergency bed days per PCT also show where the additional bed savings we have identified exist.

More on older people and emergency bed use


Hemant Patel

Comment date
15 August 2012
When 1:6 hospital admission is due to drug related problem which is created in primary care should community pharmacists not be used to reduce not only avoidable hospital admissions but also for non-life threatening urgent care? There is much talk of integration but very little thinking involving whole of the primary care. The report is an example of blinkered vision.

Lindsay Paterson

Policy Officer,
Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh
Comment date
15 August 2012
RCPE response to the King’s Fund paper “Older people and emergency bed use: Exploring variation”

The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE) endorses the desire to minimise the number of admissions to acute beds that all sectors of society, but especially the elderly, require. The RCPE is keen to state from the outset that no consultant physician wants to admit a patient to hospital unless it is absolutely clinically necessary: pressures on acute beds mean that only patients who are in urgent need of medical care can be admitted.

The latest paper from the King’s Fund suggests that if all primary care trusts could reduce admissions and minimise length of stay to that of the most successful areas then 7000 fewer acute beds would be required in England. They acknowledge that the drivers of variation in performance are complex, including age of patient, level of deprivation and geographical access: areas with well developed integrated service and those with higher levels of an aged population have lower levels of acute hospital bed use. It is suggested that areas with a high number of aged population also have a more developed integrated service.

It is for these very reasons that caution is required in interpreting this report. If acute hospital beds are reduced without a concomitant development of integrated services, patients will be potentially worse off. There is evidence of an inexorable rise in acute hospital admissions especially to acute medical units with increasing weight of expectation of what medical care can provide. We feel in these circumstances that it is vital that the promotion of admissions avoidance, particularly of older people, does not restrict appropriate access to best care at times of medical need.

Boarding of patients is rife within the acute hospital sector and this itself is associated with a range of well-evidenced adverse outcomes for patients, including increased death rates, length of stay, re-admission and the development of medical complications (1) . This problem would be exacerbated with even fewer beds being available and the pressure to achieve the elective workstream would increase with more surgical procedures having to be postponed due to a lack of beds.

The RCPE conducted a survey in May 2012 to obtain a snapshot of senior doctors’ practical ongoing experiences of boarding in Scottish hospitals. Key findings included 80% of respondents reported that boarding is now experienced all year round in Scottish hospitals (with 50% reporting that boarding had taken place during the last week in May); 71% of respondents believe boarding levels in Scotland are high and increasing, at a time when the Scottish Government has been reducing the number of acute beds in Scotland; 99% believe boarding has a very negative or negative effect on the quality of patient care, 95% a very negative or negative effect on the length of patient stay, 68% a very negative or negative effect on death rates and 68% a very negative or negative effect on rates of patient re-admission to hospital (2).

It is vital that the significant investment necessary to provide integrated services must be accurately calculated so that if the King’s Fund report is to be implemented, adequate resource is made available to enable this development prior to closure of acute hospital beds. This would allow proper consideration of the most appropriate use of the resource available to the health sector to deliver the services that are required in disparate localities.

We support shifting care closer to home; however the ambition to reduce reliance on the acute sector must not be pursued to the detriment of quality of patient care (3)

(1) Spivrulis, P.C., Da Silva, J.A., Jacobs, I.G. et al. (2006). The association between hospital overcrowding and mortality amongst patients admitted via Western Australian emergency departments. Med J Aust, 184(5); 208-212.

(2) rcpe.ac.uk/press-releases/2012/doctors-warning-scottish-hospital-patients-receiving-inappropriate-care.php

(3) rcpe.ac.uk/policy/parliamentary-briefings/doctors-warning.php

Richard Blackwell

Comment date
15 August 2012
Dr Crawford you are absolutely right that looking at the places that have improved most would give a greater insight into what can be achieved but I didn't want people to think that Torbay's success was just down to the wealth and health of their patients (by the way I don't work for Torbay I am just impressed with what they have achieved).

Sushil Radia

Westminster Homecare Limited,
Comment date
16 August 2012
It would seem logical that if more effort was made to care for older people in the community ( by meeting their nutritional needs, general well being and support) then the level of emergency hospital admissions would be reduced. However most local authority commissioners are focussed on meeting substantial and critical needs only and that only after undertaking a financial assesment, leaving considerable number of people without care & support.
Community care workers these days can, and are able to, with training, take on skilled tasks that used to be previously performed by nursing staff.

Steve Williams

Consultant Pharmacist,
Comment date
22 August 2012
King's Fund reports are always incisive and thought provoking and this one is no exception. But to pick up on H Patel's point about preventable drug related admissions (and readmissions see: Qual. Saf. Health Care 2008;17;71-75) it is interesting to note that increased drug use in older patients is not cited as part of the patient factors (demand side) driving the rate of use of hospital emergency beds for people over 65.
As we keep adding in drugs (and never subtracting ) we are always going to multiply the chance of drug related problems, and thus it seems preventable hopsital admissions,
Silo working and over specialisation in Medicine is just making this situation worse. The NHS must develop a strategy (Physicians, GPs, Pharmacists) for proper medication reviews in older frail patients and have the confidence to stop drugs (and/or respect a patient's own wishes to do so) before they cause the problems.

DK Singh

National Institute Of Professional Studi
Comment date
26 December 2016
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