Staffing shortages in NHS stroke units putting lives at risk

Shaun Lintern
Forty-eight per cent of units had at least one stroke consultant post vacant for the last 12 months: Getty

Stroke wards in hospitals across the country are severely short-staffed, new data has revealed, with experts warning services could be forced to close and lives put at risk.

The crisis in stroke care has worsened in recent years with the situation described as a “ticking time bomb” by the Stroke Association as the number of strokes is predicted to rise by 50,000 a year in just five years.

The warning follows findings from a national audit of stroke care that found 70 per cent of hospitals, 100 out of 142, were failing to meet a target of three nurses for every 10 beds working at weekends.

This is despite research showing the presence of nurses on a stroke ward seven days a week is more important than doctors in reducing patient deaths.

Only 58 per cent of hospitals, 98 out of 169, meet the target for senior nurse staffing levels.

Forty-eight per cent of units had at least one stroke consultant post vacant for the last 12 months, up from 40 per cent in 2016.

Out of 10 key standards, only 10 per cent of hospitals met eight or more, while the majority of services managed just five or fewer.

Professor Martin James, clinical director of the King’s College stroke programme, said: “This year’s audit highlights some areas in need of urgent corrective action, including aspects of services that have deteriorated in the last three years.

“The most striking of these is the worsening situation with trainee and senior medical consultant staffing in many centres, with nearly half of all acute sites now carrying at least one consultant vacancy for a median of 12 months.

“This is already jeopardising the sustainability of many services and forcing service reconfiguration, and even if decisive corrective action were taken now to improve the pipeline of doctors training in stroke medicine this would come too late to remedy the situation for some services.”

The Stroke Association said the scale of the problem “puts thousands of lives at risk and leaves many more stroke survivors under threat of a lifetime of severe disability”.

Chief executive Juliet Bouverie said: “Unless these workforce issues are urgently addressed, we are hurtling our way to a major stroke crisis in the next few years.

“The highest standards of stroke treatment and rehabilitation must be available to all. The progress in stroke treatment and care over the past 10 years runs the risk of being wasted without experienced doctors to deliver world-class stroke services.

“The lack of senior doctors and also of trainees to fill these gaps is worsening and is a ticking time-bomb for an already stretched health service,” she added.

The stroke audit also revealed more that nine out of 10 hospitals across England, Wales and Northern Island did not have the recommended level of clinical psychologists to help stroke patients with their recovery.

The Stroke Association said three-quarters of stroke survivors face anxiety and depression, while one in six survivors have suicidal thoughts.

NHS England said 170 extra lives had been saved every year as a result of stroke re-organisations in London and Manchester with new specialist units giving faster access to treatments.

A spokesperson said it was working with Health Education England to ensure more doctors can care for stroke patients.

They added: “This will mean that more of a wide range of staff will be required, and our interim people plan sets out what we can do now to modernise our stroke workforce ahead of long-term funding decisions for training being made by government later in the year.”

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