The NHS could ‘buckle’ under a flu outbreak this winter due to a crippling shortage of specialist lung doctors, experts fear.

The British Thoracic Society today warned the lack of staff and flux of patients over the coming months is the ‘perfect storm’. 

It said hospital admissions for lung diseases and killer complications of pneumonia and flu soar this time of year.  

And half of UK hospitals UK had at least one vacant respiratory consultant post in 2019 – an increase of 10 per cent since 2015. 

The NHS could 'buckle' under a flu outbreak this winter due to a crippling shortage of specialist lung doctors, experts fear

The NHS could 'buckle' under a flu outbreak this winter due to a crippling shortage of specialist lung doctors, experts fear

The NHS could ‘buckle’ under a flu outbreak this winter due to a crippling shortage of specialist lung doctors, experts fear

Professor Jon Bennett, consultant respiratory physician and chair of the BTS’ board, said: ‘We have a perfect storm here. 

‘There are rising numbers of people needing hospital attention for their lung and breathing problems with a lack of specialist staff to deal with the surge.

‘The system could buckle and is only being held together by the goodwill of specialist staff working unpaid extra hours and forgoing holiday.’  

‘Many feel burnt out, undervalued and understaffed whilst valiantly trying to cope with the large numbers of people being admitted to hospital with lung disease – especially in the winter.’

Eighty per cent of 247 NHS lung specialists polled by the society said they fear a lack of staff in their field will cause failings of care.

Professor Bennett added: ‘This survey is a red flag to the NHS – current staff shortages are at a critical level and must be addressed.

‘Lung specialists play a critical role in diagnosing and treating patients with severe breathing problems but also other health conditions in our hospitals.

‘This is so pivotal in the winter when we see a big spike in people coming to hospital with flu, pneumonia and other winter illnesses.’ 

The BTS said lung problems are the leading cause of ‘excess winter deaths’, which is when more people die than expected.   

And figures show the number of people admitted to NHS hospitals with respiratory diseases after arriving at A&E doubles during winter.  

Hospitals are already braced for a severe flu outbreak in the coming weeks, despite being understaffed in almost every category. 

Unions have warned this winter could be ‘unmanageable’ for NHS hospitals. There are 4.4million on the waiting list for routine operations while A&E wait times are the highest on record.

Experts have urged high-risk patients with respiratory diseases to get immediately vaccinated against the flu to save themselves from serious complications. 

WHAT PRESSURES ARE THE NHS FACING? 

Nursing crisis could affect patient care 

As of October 2018, there were around 41,000 nurse vacancies in NHS England.

This is predicted to reach 70,000 by 2024 at the current rate, according to a major joint report in March by the King’s Fund, Nuffield Trust and Health Foundation. 

Experts say low pay and long hours are two of the main factors which make finding nursing staff difficult. This, paired with student debt, makes the profession unappealing for young people.   

A Royal College of Nursing poll, of 1,692 Britons, found 71 per cent think there are not enough nurses to provide safe care to patients.

Of 1,408 people polled in England, 37 per cent said their top priority for any extra NHS funding was the recruitment of more nurses.  

Ageing population means more care needed

Longer lives are costing the cash-strapped NHS more money each year. 

One in six of the UK population is aged 65 and over, and by 2050 it will be one in four, according to NHS England.

This group of people are at the highest risk of adverse outcomes such as falls, disability, admission to hospital, or the need for long-term care.  

The King’s Fund reports that over 15million people in the UK have a chronic condition, many of whom will be elderly. 

The number of patients aged 75 or over needing an NHS operation in England has doubled since 1999, a study by Queen Mary University found.

Some 1,012,000 people had surgery in 2015, a sharp rise from the 545,000 recorded before the turn of the millennium. 

Bed shortages causing procedure cancellations

A record 4.4million people are waiting to go into hospital in England for a planned procedure, according to NHS England.

In comparison, a year ago there were 4.09million people on the list, and two years earlier it was 3.81million. 

A&E departments are also feeling the strain as backed-up hospital beds make it harder for them to find places to put new patients, so leave them waiting on temporary beds known as ‘trolleys’. 

NHS England revealed in July that the number of A&E patients stuck on trolleys waiting for an inpatient bed has increased by 70 per cent in a year. 

The figure is almost treble that from four years ago.

GP surgeries closing due to doctors leaving NHS

Over the last six years, 585 practices have closed, covering a population of nearly 1.9million, according to data obtained by Pulse magazine

Experts believe the rate of surgery closures is accelerating because rising numbers of under-pressure doctors are opting for early retirement – or deciding to abandon their careers. 

Despite the Government’s pledge to hire 5,000 extra GPs between by 2020, the NHS has lost almost 600 GPs in the last year.

Almost as many family doctors left the health service between June 2018 and June 2019 as did in the entire three years to March, according to NHS figures.

On top of this, a poll in February found 42 per cent of NHS GPs said they intended to leave or retire within five years, up from less than a third (32 per cent) in 2014. 

The research by the University of Warwick found almost a fifth (18 per cent) said they would leave within two years. 

Winter 2019/2020

Data from winter 2018/2019 reveals the NHS once again under intense pressure over the winter months.

A&E attendances and emergency admissions rise, there is dangerously high bed occupancy, and staff working over time – causing loss of morale. 

Total attendances at A&E rose to 6.2million last winter – a six per cent increase from the year before. Just over 85 per cent of patients were admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours – the second worst performance on record.

The average bed occupancy rate last winter remained very high, at 93.5 per cent, comparable to the previous year’s figure of 94.4 per cent.

NHS bosses have been urged to step up anti-flu preparations earlier this year after a stark rise in the number of virus cases during winter in Australia.

Top British doctors said the increase in Australia could be a sign of what is to come in the UK this winter. 

Despite the looming winter months, figures suggest the NHS is now in a year-long crisis.  

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