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NHS ramps up winter pressures preparation

Tagged In:  NHS

Once again it's that time of year when two words start to dominate many conversations in hospitals across the UK: 'winter pressures'. This year NHS England is doing more than ever to put robust contingency plans in place.

As the final bank holiday before Christmas becomes a distant memory, it won't be the 'mists and mellow fruitfulness' of autumn that will be on the minds of many doctors, nurses and hospital managers. They'll be thinking ahead to winter, which we all know can be a challenging time for the health service.

As the temperatures go down, pressures on A&E departments inevitably go up, with flu bugs on the march and cold weather adversely affecting the health of many elderly and very young people, as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions and mental health issues exacerbated by the change in seasons. However, that seasonal spike in demand is now set against a backdrop of rising pressure on the NHS generally. There were 6,000 more A&E attendances per day in 2015-16 compared with 2009-10.

This year, NHS England started planning earlier for winter pressures and is bringing in a number of additional measures to tackle the problem, including a re-launch of the Stay Well This Winter advertising campaign, supported by a website. Other initiatives include increasing the amount of clinical input into NHS 111 calls, 'front door streaming' to ambulatory and primary care for patients arriving at A&E and a 'national winter resilience room', supported by four regional rooms, with national 'command and control' at a local level to deliver a prompt response to any emerging winter pressures. 

In addition, the schools flu vaccination programme will be extended to include Year 3 as well as Years 1 and 2. Healthcare teams comprising community nurses, support workers and administrative staff will be visiting schools during the autumn term to administer the nasal vaccine to all children whose parents/guardians have given consent. Vaccination is also available free of charge at local GP practices for children aged two, three and four, as well as those aged up to 17 with long-term health conditions.

As ever, Plan B is to cancel routine operations to free up resources for A&E cover. However, it's hoped that initiatives to cut down on admissions will reduce the risk of this happening. For example, there will be more emphasis on making use of community nurses and other health professionals to promote rehabilitation, recovery and reablement at home, so that patients can be discharged from hospital earlier.

On average, well over 60,000 people per day visit A&E departments across the UK and there are over 9,000 emergency journeys by ambulance. That's in addition to almost 40,000 calls a day to the NHS 111 non-emergency number. With a dramatic increase in those figures always a possibility during the winter months, anything that relieves the pressure on already over-stretched A&E departments has to be a good thing. 

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