Express & Star

Emergency care delays to be eased with 5,000 extra hospital beds and an expansion of ‘virtual wards’

Dozens of extra hospital beds, new facilities and an expansion of 'virtual wards' will aim to help tackle the long emergency care delays in the Black Country, health chiefs said today.

Emergency department sister Naomi Henry next to the area where the new same day emergency care clinic is being built at Sandwell General Hospital

Plans to roll out 5,000 extra hospital beds and 800 new ambulances in England, among other measures, were announced in a joint Government and NHS England two-year blueprint last week.

The measures are being backed by £1bn investment in hope of easing some of the huge challenges facing the NHS.

Richard Beeken, chairman of the Black Country Urgent and Emergency Care Board, said it means dozens of extra hospital beds could open in the region, providing they can be staffed safely.

"In the main, it will give us the green light to take the beds which open temporarily and make them more permanent, providing we can staff them.

"It is about an extra ward's worth of beds – around 25 – for every hospital in the Black Country."

Richard Beeken

Mr Beeken, who is also chief executive of Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust, said a new modular building is also being built at Sandwell Hospital which will house a same day emergency care (SDEC) unit.

The new facility could allow up to 30 people a day to avoid an overnight hospital stay, he said.

The unit, which will be run by senior doctors and allow patients to be assessed, diagnosed and start treatment on the same day, aims to be up and running by late February or early March.

"It will reduce the pressure on inpatient beds," said Mr Beeken.

"The hospital already has a SDEC unit but it is tiny. There's a restricted number of patients we can put through there.

"This will give us more capacity and allow the patients to have a better experience."

The new same day emergency care clinic being built at Sandwell General Hospital

There are also plans to expand the use of 'virtual wards' in the Black Country, where patients with certain conditions can receive care in their own home through video calls and tech devices to help them self-monitor and remotely report back their own vitals.

Senior and specialist nursing staff are also being recruited to support those plans, Mr Beeken said.

Dudley’s pilot virtual children’s ward was a national first and has since been rolled out to all other Black Country trusts.

It comes after hospitals in the region have seen huge demand this winter.

An Express & Star investigation recently revealed the full extent of the NHS crisis through the eyes of those who work in it.

It featured frontline staff speaking about the intense strain of working in a system broken by unmanageable demand – with one senior doctor describing an emergency department as being "like a warzone".

Speaking about the pressures, Mr Beeken said: "There's been a big increase in people walking in to the emergency departments, that's not just Sandwell – it's the Black Country as a whole.

"We've seen patients who do need admitting, they tend to be more sick than we've seen before.

"We've seen problems with discharging patients from hospital get that bit worse."

The problems have led to large numbers of patients waiting in A&E units, causing delays in ambulance crews being able to handover patients.

"It completely congests the system," he said.

"I've been in the service a long time and I've never seen it like this before.

"This winter has been truly awful."

Although, he said pressures have been easing recently, earlier than usual for this time of year.

"We don't know what is driving that," he added.

"Flu and Covid infection rates are coming down which is helping to make things calmer.

"But we worry some people aren't accessing care that should be.

"I would always say if you are unwell you need to access healthcare.

"Don't shy away from coming to hospital. You might have to wait longer than five years ago but that doesn't mean you won't get the treatment you need."

Health leaders from across the hospital, primary care and community sectors have been working together to stand up a wide range of new ways of working, all aimed at supporting the NHS to help patients during the winter months.

These have included having a system control centre that monitors demand on urgent care services across the Black Country in real time and supports NHS trusts to help each other during times of peak pressure.

Bosses said there had been updated configurations in hospitals to improve patient flow, including a new ambulance receiving centre in Wolverhampton and a dedicated discharge hub in Sandwell.

Dedicated community hubs are also offering same day, face-to-face GP appointments for children and young people with respiratory symptoms.

The pilot hub in Sandwell saw more than 9,000 patients in its first year and was able to add extra capacity to support worried parents during the recent rise in Strep A infections.

Mr Beeken added: “The NHS and our partners across the system were in no doubt that this was set to be our most challenging winter yet, but it is our duty to work together to ensure we continue to deliver the best services we can for local people.

“I am proud of how our staff across the Black Country have stepped up to see us all through this pressured period – from those who devised and embedded innovations that have fundamentally improved how we deliver urgent care, through to those working flat out on the front lines providing compassion and quality care to patients needing our services.

"However, we recognise that some patients are waiting for longer than we would want, and we apologise for this.”

Jonathan Fellows, chairman of NHS Black Country Integrated Care Board, said: “This has been a tough winter – we have seen hundreds hospitalised by aggressive strains of the flu, a major cold snap that impacted the health of some of our most vulnerable citizens, a surge in Strep A infections in children that was very worrying for parents and carers, and all while Covid-19 was still circulating in the community.

“I want to thank all our NHS staff for their hard work this winter, as well as the local people who are supporting us at this time by using our services appropriately.

"The NHS is very much open and here for you, so if you are worried about anything please don’t hesitate to come forward – use NHS 111 online in the first instance to get fast advice and ensure you’re seen by the right expert at the right time.”