NHS England has been accused of releasing “misleading” data on the number of available children’s intensive care beds in a move which underplays the extent of the winter crisis.
The official statistics state that the occupancy rate of paediatric intensive beds was on 81 per cent in December, but the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said the figure was between 90 to 100 per cent, The Independent can reveal.
The College has also said the NHS figures, which they have described as “inaccurate”, list a number of paediatric intensive care beds in areas that do not have the necessary units to host them.
Professor Neena Modi, president of RCPCH, warned that the system was at “breaking point”.
Statistics released by the Paediatric Intensive Care Audit Network (PICAnet), an audit database that records details of the treatment of all critically ill children in paediatric intensive care units, provided a more accurate portrayal of the current situation, she said.
“The figures released by NHS England are inaccurate as they suggest much lower occupancy rates than PICAnet data – a validated national audit – shows,” Prof Modi told The Independent. “The reality is, occupancy rates for paediatric intensive care beds are between 90 and 100 per cent at any given time.
“These pressure reach their peak during the winter period. The figures will simply not improve unless firstly the true seriousness of the problem is acknowledged, and secondly a long-term solution is put in place to deal with the chronic shortage of doctors and nurses.
“It’s down to the hard work of dedicated staff across the NHS that means children who require urgent care are seen and treated effectively – but the system really is reaching breaking point.”
The news comes after The Independent revealed last week that adult patients were being put on children’s wards as hospitals struggle for space. Three hospitals were identified as being so full that they either have or were considering turning over paediatric beds to older patients.
Pressures have been so severe on the NHS that it has been deemed “simply unsafe” by experts.
The NHS Confederation, which represents organisations across the health service, said figures from the NHS’s weekly winter progress reports told a “very alarming story at this stage in winter – hospitals are nearly full”.
According to the official figures released by NHS England, at its highest level in December 2017, occupancy for paediatric intensive care beds peaked at 86 per cent.
But Dr Peter-Marc Fortune, a consultant in paediatric intensive care and the president of the Paediatric Intensive Care Society, said at times, especially during the winter, children’s intensive care units are forced to run at over full capacity.
He also added that occupancy rates greater than 80 per cent could lead to an “inability for intensive care units to respond to both emergency and elective demands optimally”.
“The data, published on the NHS England website, includes bed numbers for trusts that do not have paediatric intensive care units,” Dr Fortune told The Independent.
“Therefore, the national occupancy rates that are shown in these spreadsheets are misleading, they do not reflect the status of our paediatric intensive care units and should not be interpreted as such.
“Demand for beds is always higher during the winter months and that reported by individual paediatric intensive care units is commonly between 95 and 105 per cent during this time.”
Dr Fortune added his figures were supported by data from PICANet and that he was not aware of any “validated data source” that would support NHS England’s claims.
An A&E consultant from a London hospital, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told The Independent that on some days in December doctors were told “there were no paediatric intensive care beds available anywhere in the country”.
NHS England has commissioned a full review of paediatric critical care services and is set to outline of a new care model for children and young people.
Both the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Paediatric Intensive Care Society called for this to be resourced properly to ensure it is effective.
Jacqui Cornish, the NHS England’s national clinical director for children and young people, said: “The weekly data published by NHS England includes dedicated intensive care and high dependency units, and have shown an occupancy level of between 75 per cent and 80 per cent in recent weeks. These data from the Paediatric Intensive Care Audit Network only cover a subset of these beds and are not comparable.”
But Dr Fortune said that the data is labelled by NHS England as “paediatric intensive care” and made no mention of high dependency units. He added that the higher occupancy rates for paediatric intensive care beds that he previously stated, consistent with that reported by PICANet, reflects the current situation in paediatric intensive care units.