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Emergency patients let down by labour targets, say surgeons

Emergency patients are being let down by the health service because managers are more concerned with meeting targets by treating those with appointments, the heads of Royal Colleges warn.Emergency patients let down by labour targets, say surgeons

In a letter to The Daily Telegraph, some of the country’s most senior doctors say they are “deeply frustrated” at the low priority given to Accident and Emergency.

Targets concerning waiting times and cancelled operations, introduced under Labour, result in managers pushing doctors to operate on patients whose care has been pre-planned, in order to avoid financial penalties. But they can also mean that those who come in as emergency cases are stabilised and admitted but then left to wait for surgery.

Studies have shown that elderly people with fractured hips who do not undergo surgery within 48 hours are less likely to regain full mobility. Younger patients with shattered pelvises, from motorcycle or horse-riding accidents, are less likely to walk again if their operations are delayed.

A report published on Thursday criticised care for the elderly, finding that two thirds of those who died within a month of surgery had not received proper care and that they had often been left in pain.

Most of those patients were being treated for bowel conditions or broken hips, which are usually admitted as emergency cases.

John Black, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, said the report echoed concerns that surgeons had been raising for some time.

In the letter, Mr Black said: “It is a source of deep frustration to our members that hospitals have become organised to deal quickly with elective operations at the cost of properly managing emergency care.”

The Coalition’s reforms of the NHS could help by making hospitals more accountable to GPs for the care they provide, he said.

The letter was signed by Peter Nightingale, president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists; Peter Kay, president of the British Orthopaedic Association; Finbarr Martin, president of the British Geriatric Society; Mike Horrocks, president of the Association of Surgeons; and Clare Marx, the Royal College of Surgeons’ lead representative in matters of patient safety.

Mr Horrocks said: “In recent years, the NHS has been set targets for elective operations to bring down waiting lists.

“This has been fantastic for patients with non-emergency conditions, but came at the detriment of those who require urgent treatment as hospitals focused on hitting those targets.

“The new government has committed to moving away from targets and towards measuring and rewarding hospitals who deliver good outcomes and this report should provide further evidence that this approach is correct.”

Under Labour, patients had to be treated within 18 weeks of a referral by their family doctor.

Surgeons have told the Telegraph that this resulted in extreme pressure to operate on any patients in danger of failing to meet that target, ahead of cases that came in as emergencies.

Any pre-planned operation that was cancelled was recorded and the data published. The patient then had to be rescheduled within 28 days, adding to the pressure to give elective operations priority, doctors have said.

Mr Black added: “Surgeons have been saying for some time that emergency surgery is a Cinderella service in the modern NHS.

“We will only solve these problems if focusing on emergency care becomes a priority in the boardroom as well as the ward.”

Katherine Murphy, director of the Patients Association, said: “It can be so debilitating for someone who has a fracture to be left for a couple of days or longer, waiting for an operation when the trust is focused yet again on meeting these pernicious targets. It is an appalling way to determine who gets care. An emergency should be an emergency.

“The financial rewards for elective surgery are more lucrative for the trust than for emergencies and that is why trusts continue to focus on elective treatment. We cannot make savings by putting patients through unnecessary pain and suffering.”