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More than 250 patients a week ‘die needlessly due to long A&E waits’

More than 250 patients a week may have died needlessly in England last year due to very long waits in A&E for a hospital bed, new estimates suggest.

Calculations by the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (RCEM) which have been shared with the PA news agency suggest patients are coming to harm due to spending hours in A&E, particularly after a decision has been made to admit them.

The NHS recovery plan set a target of March for 76% of patients attending A&E to be admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours.

But data for March shows just 70.9% of patients were seen within that time frame.

In February, the number of people waiting more than 12 hours in A&E departments from a decision to admit to actually being admitted stood at 44,417.

For its new excess death estimates, the RCEM used a very large study of more than five million NHS patients published in the Emergency Medicine Journal (EMJ) in 2021.

This found there was one excess death for every 72 patients that spent eight to 12 hours in an A&E department.

The risk of death started to increase after five hours and got worse with longer waiting times.

In 2022, the RCEM said it believed 300 to 500 excess deaths were likely to have occurred in England each week using this calculation, but it has since carried out a Freedom of Information audit of NHS trusts to refine this figure.

This found that 65% of people waiting 12 hours or more in A&E are patients waiting for a hospital bed.

NHS data for England shows more than 1.5 million patients waited 12 hours or more in major emergency departments in 2023, meaning over a million of those were waiting for a bed.

The RCEM has calculated that, when looking solely at patients awaiting admission, an average of 268 excess deaths are likely to have occurred each week in 2023, which is “only 17 fewer than 2022 when applying the same method”.

The college added that patients delayed in the back of ambulances, “of which there are thousands”, are not included in the figures but are also at risk of harm.

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