Spike in deaths 'most likely caused by NHS cuts'
17th February 2017 – Failings in the NHS and social care system caused by underinvestment are the most likely explanation for a surge in deaths in England and Wales, according to a new analysis.
There were around 30,000 excess deaths in 2015, which was the largest increase in mortality in the previous 50 years.
Many of the deaths happened in January that year and were largely seen in older people who are most dependent on the NHS and social care.
The study in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine was carried out by researchers from the London School of Tropical Medicine, the University of Oxford and Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council.
The Department of Health is denying that funding is to blame and says the researchers have picked an unrepresentative year for their investigation.
Reversing a long-term trend
The researchers say a long-term decline in death was reversed in 2011. Although there was a small fall in mortality rates between 2013 and 2014, the following year saw the largest increase in deaths in the post-war period.
The team tested four possible explanations for the January 2015 spike in deaths, including data errors, cold weather and flu. But they say NHS performance data revealed clear evidence that health system errors were responsible.
Standards worsened "markedly" during the month in every area except cancer care, they found. These included missed targets for ambulance call-out times, including those for life-threatening cases, and targets for accident and emergency departments.
Waiting times for diagnostic tests and consultant-led care increased, the number of operations cancelled rose, bed shortages worsened and hospital posts remained unfilled because staff had not been appointed.
"Our findings show that the greatest increase in mortality was among those aged 75 plus," says Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who led the study.
'A worsening financial situation'
The authors say they can't reach firm conclusions about what went wrong, but they write: "Our findings should be seen in the context of the worsening financial situation of the NHS. Since the
2010 election, the impact of cuts resulting from the imposition of austerity on the NHS has been profound.
"Expenditure has failed to keep pace with demand, and the situation has been exacerbated by dramatic reductions in the welfare budget of £16.7 billion and further reductions in social care spending."
The report says, despite an ageing population, the social care system has faced a 17% cut in spending for older people since 2009, increasing pressure on the health service.
"To maintain current levels of care would require an extra £1.1 billion, which the government has refused," the researchers write. "This will become much worse given the higher prices of imported drugs and equipment following the EU referendum, while the potential loss of health and social care workers from other EU countries will exacerbate staffing problems."
"Our main recommendation is to invest additional resources in monitoring the health of the population, so that when problems arise it is possible to find explanations more rapidly and, where necessary, do something about them," Professor McKee tells us.